Sara Forslund, Lárus Sigurðsson & David Åhlén: Poems of Despair

I'll confess I was at first a little disappointed to learn that David Åhlén would be sharing the vocal stage with another on Poems of Despair, so much have I come to love the Swedish singer-songwriter's singing. But said disappointment quickly turned to pleasure after hearing Sara Forslund's singing, so much so that my revised view contends that the project is enhanced by the presence of the two vocalists. I really shouldn't have doubted that her contributions would be as satisfying as they are, considering that her singing previously distinguished Birch and Meadow, her group project with David Wenngren (aka Library Tapes), and her 2015 solo debut album Water Became Wild. Of course Åhlén's name will be familiar to textura readers, his We Sprout in Thy Soil (2009), Selah (2013), and Hidden Light (2016) albums having been received rapturously upon their release, while the third collaborator, Lárus Sigurðsson, is a Reykjavik-based composer, arranger, musician, and instrument maker who's been involved in numerous collaborations and released several ambient solo albums.

The project's origins merit mention. In 2011, having developed a project based on the biblical “Book of Lamentations,” a story about destruction, despair, mourning, and the experiences of people dealing with the ruins of their city and holy temple, artist Samuel Sander traveled to Jerusalem in the company of Åhlén where the two spent five days at the Western Wall during Tisha B'Av, an annual fast day in Judaism that commemorates various tragedies in Jewish history. Visual and audio materials gathered during the trip eventually developed into the art exhibit Lamentations that was presented in Norrköping, Sweden, after which the project progressed to its next stages when Bengt Thurfjell wrote Poems of Despair and Åhlén set some of its poems to music. With Forslund and Sigurðsson aboard, the three devoted their collective energies to recording the material at various studios in 2016, the result being the inaugural release on the nascent Gotlandic label Kaip.

The album's eight songs total thirty-two minutes, but Poems of Despair never feels slighted by its modest length. In addition to arranging the material, Sigurðsson contributes a number of instrument sounds to the project, be it piano, electronics, or percussion, and helping to flesh out the album's delicate folk-chamber arrangements are violinist Chrissie Guðmundsdóttir, cellist Viktoría Tarevskaia, trombonist Þröstur Sigurðsson, and guitar soundscapist Ólafur Josephsson. “The Meaning” opens the album with Forslund's voice accompanied by harp and strings, the pleading ache of her delivery conveying desperation whether presented solo or in stacked harmonies. Åhlén's signature falsetto takes over for “The Thoughts,” the song's mysterious character deepened by mallet percussion and string textures, and sings affectingly of Jerusalem during “The City.” As glorious as his singing predictably is, Forslund's is equally strong, as shown by the gorgeous turn she takes on “The Weakness.” Generally, their voices alternate from one haunting song to the next, though “The Hope” and “The Longing” see the two sharing the vocal stage to mesmerizing effect. The oft-lilting songs are, of course, devotional in nature, and though despair might be the dominant theme, the tone of the album is often hopeful and even uplifting, its title notwithstanding. Such heartfelt expressions of longing offer succor more than they do despair.

May 2017