Like her Morr Music labelmates Múm, Sóley Stefánsdóttir has a finely-tuned feel for atmosphere. She writes, plays, and records under her first name, and her songs orbit an innately satisfying sense of beauty. They’re pretty in the way a landscape is pretty: simply and self-evidently. On her second full-length album, Ask the Deep, Sóley grazes a darkness that she’s unwilling to plumb thoroughly. She courts eerie sounds and dark imagery, but in a way that makes you feel like you’re looking at the shadow of something frightening, not at the monster itself.
Sóley trades in the more classical, piano-based template of her 2011 debut, We Sink, for a palette glinting with electronics. The mood darkens here from her previous work; from the album’s first stanzas, she sings of loving the devil himself, then wonders if he’s actually taken her over: “If my mind is the devil/ I will have to leave,” she sings through a cavern of piano and synth. “It’s never sunny anyway,” she continues, as if condemning the geographical downfalls to her northern hemisphere home in Iceland.
“Devil”, the album’s opener, sets a tempo and mood that follows steadily through the rest of the record. She sings through the same multiple tracks, mixed to the same level above her instrumentation. Certain songwriting choices feel lifted verbatim from their sources; the intro to “Halloween” echoes The Knife’s “Marble House” so closely it could be a remix of the 2006 single. Others, like the lurching back-and-forth beat on “Follow Me Down”, push Sóley toward a post where she can sing authoritatively over the swarm of instruments that build beneath her. But the songs swell in round, easy ways, rarely plunging into the sadness and anger that show themselves in flickers throughout her lyrics.
Ask the Deep is a steady album that’s tinged with melancholy and readily attentive to its own prettiness. But if there’s danger to be found emanating from Sóley’s music — and with lines like “maybe it’s best if I kill you right now,” there should be — it’s too quickly smoothed over by an unchanging sheen.
Essential Tracks: “Devil”, “Follow Me Down”