Unpopular advent 2021 – day 23

Frida Hyvönen – ’14 at 41′ from Dream Of Independence

Thirteen years ago I made my first Unpopular advent collection. As is the way of such things, when I glance back at the songs and records now there are many that I have forgotten all about. Some may not have stood the test of time but that is fine. Not all art is made to be timeless, and Pop music perhaps least of all. Other records from 2008, on the other hand, do still sound remarkable and none more so than Frida Hyvönen’s ‘Silence Is Wild’ that topped my personal chart that year. It’s been nine years too since Hyvönen’s last album in English (2016’s Swedish language ‘Kvinnor och barnsounded terrific, but my anglo-centric arrogance has to admit to hankering after a ‘Säkert! på engelska’ equivalent…) so it was not without a degree of trepidation that I picked up ‘Dream Of Independence’, wondering if the magic would hit me again.

Pre-album single ‘A Funeral In Banbridge’ certainly suggested that ‘Dream of Independence’ would be something special. With it’s mid-paced piano and plaintive guitar piercing the air, the song is literally driven forward by Hyvönen’s relentless vocal that scarcely pauses for breath in its three minutes and forty seven seconds of astonishingly forthright yet remarkably poignant narrative. To reference an old English advertising campaign, the song tells a story of exactly what it says on the tin, Hyvönen relating everything in an almost stream of conscious exhalation of anxiety and relief. From having a salad and a drink on the train through Wales to the car full of dog hair at the song’s remarkably, brilliantly blunt conclusion, the song shows Hyvönen’s skill for straight descriptive narrative that somehow carries an emotional heft that is as powerful as it is deftly subtle. Sure, it ends up being a highlight on the album, but only as one of a number of highlights, each in turn only barely discernible as such amongst the fabulously high quality of the whole album.

It’s as a whole album that ‘Dream of Independence’ really finds its strength too, as each song supports the others to build a profoundly moving portrait of lives entering middle-age with all its wonders and fears. It would be a mistake of course to suggest that the album/portrait is entirely autobiographical, but that is part of the appeal of art, after all. Certainly a song like the terrific album closer ‘Painter’ is something that can play the game of meta-narrative as a singer/songwriter examines the myth of creative genius, the (self)imposed imperative of building bodies of work, the illusory ‘power’ of the goddess that is more accurately a construct of entrapment. Like the rest of ‘Dream of Independence’ it is by turns fractured, complex, self-contained yet inextricably connected to the whole of the album. Elsewhere there are songs that take in children (‘Abyss at Bay (Daughter)’, facing down the menopause (‘New Vision’) and facing down the ageing face in the mirror (er, ‘Face’, oddly enough). “Once my pride now a disgrace / Have you seen my ageing face?” she sings in a marvellous blend of hysteria and humour. As Dean Wareham might say, every fuck here is a flying fuck. Magnificently so.

If there is a point in which all of this does veer most explicitly into autobiography, however, it is on the six and half minute documentary short of ’14 at 41′. I mean, there is not actually a film for this, except the one we must surely construct in our minds’ eyes as Hyvönen so eloquently takes us on a journey into unexpected new romance, stumbled upon in a summer field in which Lana Del Ray is playing. Now personally I do not understand the appeal of Lana Del Ray, but others (Hyvönen’s protagonists, one assumes, amongst them) do and that is fine. It is only Pop music, after all. Therein lies the catch of course, because whilst only love can break our hearts, perhaps Pop music can be one of those threads that can help bind them together. Certainly the thread is there in ’14 at 41′ as Hyvönen conjures some of those emerging passions of obsession and attachment.

Now any remotely regular Unpopular reader will know that there is an argument to be made saying Pop is, at its core, about the essence of being 16, that being an age at which elements coalesce into an identity that may still be seeking confirmation but is essentially complete. With this in mind then I think it’s particularly poignant that Hyvönen pitches herself back before this point, to an age where the thrill of the potential for emotional attachment is perhaps at its peak. That point before what Lester Bangs once called “the bullshit of being a teenager” has yet to consume all the promise of possibility under the deadweight of ‘meaning’ and the weary navigation of ‘cool’. As Hyvönen seems to suggest in this song, all of those things are as irrelevances in the face of love, where happiness is transmitted through tenderness and nature rather than the contents of a record collection or book shelves. There is an implicit understanding too in the song that this notion of an earlier self is recognisably illusory, is actually little more than a narrative device that means little in the captivating pleasure to be found in the now. It’s that flux of time again, pulsing backwards and forwards, a well from which we might draw nostalgic strength but only in order to nourish the present.

In the end then, ‘Dream of Independence’ is a triumph of complexity sneaking stealthily in under a cloak of descriptive narrative. It is an unashamedly mature record about loss, anxiety, love, nature, magic and age. It plays intelligent games of real/not real and weaves the most captivating tapestry out of past, present and the possibilities of every future. Magnificent.

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