Morning & Sunrise (De Stijl)
Jakob Olausson’s Morning & Sunrise makes me wish I were writing about the album while on a plane, descending through clouds at dusk. A lucky wish, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. Or rather, what I was doing when I came up with that sentence.
Jakob Olausson’s music is strangely dissociative. It sounds ancient and equally contemporary, drawing on traditional folk patterns while skirting the last decade’s lo-fi revival. His songs are spectral, yet uplifting. Lyrically, Olausson deals with themes of love and loss—the eternal pop concerns—yet his vocal inflection and phrasing create a personal environment. He creates a spooky hook with the indictment, “You left town / when all your bridges burned.”
As my plane dropped into the clouds, I contrasted Morning & Sunrise to Olausson’s first and only other album, Moonlight Farm. His music has previously been characterized by its home-recorded folk and drone atmosphere. The recent album maintains the ramshackle qualities of his earlier work, but adopts a more classic indie-rock tone. Much of the initial album’s haunting beauty is lost in the transition.
An opening track always highlights essential differences between two albums. Olausson double-tracked his vocals on every track of Moonlight Farm, as though he were singing with his own ghost. On opener “What Will Tomorrow Bring,” he highlights his upper register, placing his lower, more robust vocals deeper in the mix. A lead guitar line and a violin part mimic each other, then deviate, for a primary melody that floats over a lightly plucked repeating guitar figure. Midway through, a ragged sitar emerges as a wind-battered bridge, before being blown into the canyon of another verse. A tambourine shakes throughout, changing beat emphasis as the song shifts and narrows to a close. Quintessentially lo-fi, it was recorded while Olausson worked as a beet farmer in Scandinavia.
Morning and Sunrise’s first track, “Don’t Drown In Sorrows,” opens with a Neil Young style guitar lead, reminiscent of his more relaxed Crazy Horse moments. The song fades in as though the band has been playing for a while and the listener has made his way into the recording space. The recording quality has markedly improved since Moonlight Farm.
Instead of doubling his vocals, Olausson relies on a swath of reverb. It’s slightly cleaner here, more obviously a studio effect and less a whisper from another plane. “Sorrows” maintains a basic kick drum and cymbal tick-two-three-four, its simplicity exaggerated by the fact that it might be created by an actual drum kit.
Presented with a more traditional array of professional equipment, Olausson attempts to translate his aesthetic. On Moonlight Farm, he employs a wider range of instrumentation, incorporating flute, sitar, and harmonium. On his second album, a flute doesn’t appear until “Engraved Invitation,” the sixth of eight songs. The prior five songs incorporate the usual mix of guitar, bass, drums and voice. “Engraved Invitation” is also the first song with distinctly double-tracked vocals.
Elegant yet ramshackle, this track marks a turning point. Olausson has never released up-tempo music, but “Engraved Invitation” provides a slight lift, marrying his unique vocals to a laid-back strum pattern and unhurried tempo. “When Your Bridges Burned” and “Doctor’s Deeds” update Olausson’s sound without replicating contemporary lo-fi acts like Woods.
As the landing gear drops from the plane, and indistinct foliage turns to leaves and branches, I realize that Olausson is mining very delicate territory typically defined by one-off releases such as Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs. Yet Olausson has produced two albums, and displays the urge and ability to tinker with his own world instead of repeating himself. As I think of touching down, again, I hope he releases a third.