Judging from the reaction to Aurora Aksnes’ earlier EP, Running with the Wolves (May 2015), which became one of the most streamed albums in the world with 30 million on Spotify alone, we’ve got a new Judy Garland on our hands. I wasn’t able to get into a sold out Deaf Institute for her Manchester show back in February but TMB’s James waxed lyrical about her.
In case you’ve somehow missed her (you haven’t of course, if you heard/saw the tear jerking John Lewis Christmas TV advert, but I’ll say no more about that) then a brief overview of Aurora follows. She’s just 19 and looks younger, from Bergen in Norway (oil and gas field city par excellence) and is a genuine self-taught child musician, learning firstly to play and then to compose on an electric piano that she found in an attic, and without much in the way of encouragement from her parents. She began writing songs aged 9 or 10, and with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as influences rather than Atomic Kitten, S Club 7 or Steps. That’s sort of scary, isn’t it?
As seems to happen quite frequently it was a school friend who helped bring her to the world’s attention, clandestinely uploading one of her early songs on to a Norwegian streaming site. A management company picked up on it and quickly began working with her and she signed to Glassnote Records, Decca and Petroleum Records in 2014. Her first single that is on this album (and fourth in total) – Runaway – was released around this time last year. Well received by Scandinavian blogs, she rapidly found a new friend in none other than Katy Perry, who’s continued to support her ever since. Great mainstream press reviews, a string of festival appearances last summer, inclusion on the soundtrack of FIFA 16 and an appearance at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo (see the dramatic, barefoot performance of Runaway at the end) have served to add impetus to her growing reputation as the Next Big Thing. I confidently expect there’ll be a soccer style biography out soon, ‘My story so far.’ Seriously, you do worry that zero to Nobel Peace Prize star performer in less than a year might be too far, too fast.
So, to the album. I’ll start off by saying that if there is one criticism of Aurora that you’ll soon come across online it is that she sounds too much like Sia on some songs. That’s possibly true (although you can usually tell what Aurora is singing about; that isn’t always the case with Ms Furler), and even some of the numerical lyrics are similar (1,2,3 // 5,4,3,2,1). Where there are genuine comparisons to be made with Sia I point them out. There’s only one. Personally, I think this observation rarely stands up to scrutiny.
All my Demons Greeting Me as a Friend (even the title’s got Leonard Cohen written all over it; dark and deep) starts off with Runaway. She shows immediately that she knows how to raise and lower tension in a song that has more stops and starts than my washing machine set to ‘difficult stains.’ Whatever she’s running from isn’t clear but her emotional flight is pointless as she quickly yearns for someone to ‘take me home, where I belong.’ I don’t know if Aurora or her producer was responsible for it but her vocals are supported by some beautifully delicate electronic backing music that is worth listening to just on its own.
Track 2, Conqueror, does have strong hints of Sia with various whow-oh-whow-ohs, in a catchy powerful pop epic, embracing striking chords, various voices off and Adam and the Ants-style drums (think Stand & Deliver, Prince Charming etc). Her explanation of the song is that it is “about a world that is falling apart around you and you’re looking for a conqueror to save you. But you’re looking for the conqueror in someone else, which I think is something you should not do. You should find the conqueror in yourself first, and be your own hero.” I suppose Heather Small was in this territory a long time ago with M People’s ‘Search for the Hero’ but it’s a message worth repeating and the simple melody line will stick unremittingly in your head.
Running with the Wolves is slightly reminiscent of a Susanne Sundfør song (for some reason I can’t stop thinking of White Foxes). It’s a song about pack instinct, transferred from the animal kingdom to the human one, with synths and the beat fusing to suggest a tribal feel.
Lucky is a lovely, slowly building ballad of survival-against-the-odds-with the sort of instrumental backing that I’d associate with the likes of Peter Gabriel. Yes, it really is that good. Now here’s the punch line. Rumour has it that she was nine years old when she wrote it. The lyrics alone are so diffidently powerful that I feel bad about pointing out the only fault I’ve found in them; when she sings ‘not anybody knows that I am lucky to be a alive,’ surely meaning ‘not everybody…’ Otherwise her English is pretty well perfect (and she even sounds English when she speaks), which, regrettably isn’t always the case with some otherwise excellent Scandinavian artists. Then the big ending just kills it for me.
Listening to Winter Bird it struck me how wordy Aurora is. Where vocal brevity is the watchword of some of her contemporaries, Aurora’s lyrics go on and on (perhaps I should offer to collaborate with her). This song draws parallels between nature and the soul – suggesting that our view of the world around us is influenced by our emotions and our history. Not as immediate as the preceding songs it is still quite satisfying and ends on what is by now a common theme as she sings ‘all I need is to remember what it means to feel alive.’
I Went Too Far concerns doing just that in our desire for the approval and love of someone else, such as putting someone on a plinth. Not especially tuneful, and with uninspiring lyrics like ‘why can’t I turn around and walk away, Go back in time?’ it’s standard pop fare though I’d hesitate to call it filler.
In Through the Eyes of a Child Aurora yearns to be able to see the world that way, from a position of innocence and naivety. She isn’t the first musician to do that, and won’t be the last. The song changes towards the end into an outro that is a mournful lament that would lull you to sleep if it went on long enough, which I suppose is the intention, just as a mother sings a lullaby to a baby. Someone ought to bottle it and channel it through headsets on red eye flights as an alternative to that lapping wave sound. They’d make a fortune.
The next two tracks couldn’t be more different. ‘Warrior’ (as she calls her fans, Gaga-style, along with ‘weirdos’), is far more upbeat. The big drums are back as Aurora informs an unsuspecting world that she is a warrior of love. Meanwhile, track #9 is probably the darkest on the album.
Murder Song (5,4,3,2,1) is an indeterminate song about a murder (hers) (‘the gun is gone, and so am I, and here I go’). It reminds me of a synopsis of Martin Amis’ London Fields, in which the horrific murder referred to on the opening page is played out to a conclusion the full length of the novel. The reason for the murder isn’t disclosed; the lines ‘he did it to spare me from the awful things in life that come’ and ‘I know that he knows he’s killing me for mercy’ hint at a compassion killing or even an ‘honour’ one. But it doesn’t really matter. It is the mood she creates, a product, as I said in a review of Highasakite recently, of the lingering paranoia in Norway following the Brevik mass murders five years ago that had a deep impact on that society. This is as bleak as it gets.
Home is a multi-voiced, almost choral affair, another Sundfør trick adopted to great effect and with final section synths that could have been provided by Anthony Gonzalez or Jean Michel Jarre. With a little vocal melisma thrown in, it’s quite charming.
Plenty of songwriters have used water and drowning as a metaphor for something or other and on penultimate song Under the Water, Aurora does the same. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, possibly about jumping into a situation over which we have no control, but after a couple of listens it doesn’t quite work for me, the melody line is weak, the chorus unconvincing, lyrics confusing and towards the end it sounds like Aurora decided to have a little experimentation on one track just for the hell of it. It’s the sort of thing Twiggy Frostbite might do except they do it better.
The album wraps up with Black Water Lilies, in which she’s back on the water and in danger of drowning again. Don’t they teach the kids to swim in Norway? I’m not sure what instruments open this song – probably just synths – along with a simple piano riff, but it/they set a magical tone that continues throughout the length of the track, at the expense of the vocals, which, as good as they are, have to play second fiddle to this wonderful musical arrangement. I mentioned Peter Gabriel earlier and there are a couple of passages – you’ll hear it straight away if you’re familiar – where the theme is straight out of his ‘San Jacinto.’
So, a quick summary. Just one track I didn’t much care for and one other that I’m unsure about. All the others are very good or excellent. A terrific and varied debut album, especially from someone so young and which owes as much to the production as it does to Aurora herself though she has already proved she can deliver live, without the certainty of that studio musical accompaniment. And she also confirmed you can do ‘dark’ songs without them being depressing. Highlights? If I had to name just two I’d opt for Runaway and Lucky.
Norway is punching with the weight of Mike Tyson momentarily, what with Sundfør, Highaskite, Emile Nicolas, Alan Walker and Frøkedal amongst others, in addition to Aurora. Long may it continue.
Aurora performs at the Latitude Festival in July then returns to the UK in October for a seven city tour that starts in Manchester on the 4th at the O2 Ritz.
©D J Bentley, 2016