Some artists revel in the little details, digging into life’s minutiae in search of unexpected meaning. Others turn their eyes away from the street and cast them towards the sky, sparring with grand forces on their abstract home turf. El Perro del Mar, a.k.a. Gothenburg-born Sarah Assbring, has made her home in the latter camp.
Backed by gauzy compositions and softly lilting vocals, she eats everlasting joy for breakfast, then turns around and thumbs her nose at darkness and desolation before tea time. The clashing forces of hope and despair figure strongly in her music, love and sensual joy ranged against the bleak ranks of despondency and desperation.
For her last couple of albums, 2008′s From The Valley To The Stars and 2009′s Love Is Not Pop, it’s always felt like the forces of light had the upper hand, whether in the former’s whimsical visions of earthly paradise, on which Assbring giddily sighed “to give love, to give love, to give love” for the sheer wonder of it, or in the latter’s sharper exploration of romance and heartbreak. No matter how dark the clouds seemed to get, happiness was always right there in front of her, waiting to be seized in a revelatory moment.
On her fourth album Pale Fire, the winds seem to have shifted for El Perro Del Mar. Love and joy, her previously unconquerable companions, have been pushed back to a flickering light on the edge of a dark horizon. Doubt is a more forceful presence than ever before. On ‘Hold Off The Dawn’, a loping bassline and soft trance piano chords provide the backdrop to Assbring’s rejection of the future, of hope, in favour of desperately rearranging the past. Similarly, ‘I Was A Boy’, perhaps the album’s prettiest track, finds her romanticising simple memories in the face of a messy future, cushioned within the song’s rhythmic cocoon: “Didn’t you know, I was my own/Before you came”.
Of course, there are moments of strength and belief. The titular opener is all brittle brass and emotional resolution, horns blaring as she repeats the refrain “Never grow tired of this pale, pale fire” like a personal mantra. The house vibe and jerky bass stabs of ‘I Carry The Fire’ bring a muscular quality that matches Assbring’s defiant proclamations on inner power. But for every moment she has that symbolic fire in her sights, there are two more where it remains elusive.
While the clouds might have closed in on Assbring’s emotional outlook, on Pale Fire her musical horizons are wider than ever. There are nods to ’90s British dance and rave culture throughout, albeit filtered through EPDM’s delicate sonic sieve. Lead track ‘Walk On By’, an ode to solitude and disengagement, hums along like a lightly anaesthetised version of acid house while Assbring’s vocal melodies are faintly reminiscent of those sung by Seal in the chorus of Adamski’s ‘Killer’, that staple of early ’90s soul-pop. And if you listen closely towards the end of the reggae-inflected ‘Love In Vain’, you’ll notice a subtle little section that echoes the main sample on The Prodigy’s classic raver ‘Out Of Space’, if it had been left out in the sun for a few days. The ’90s loom large, but elsewhere Pale Fire sounds distinctly 2012, especially set closer ‘Dark Night’, a foreboding slow-burn that evokes the piece-by-piece sonic build-up of Lindstrøm and the ominous synths of Zola Jesus.
Although there are times where Assbring’s melancholy lyrical swing matched with her restrained songwriting make Pale Fire seem difficult compared to the luminosity of an album like From The Valley To The Stars, dedicated listeners will in fact be rewarded – as with any El Perro Del Mar album – with layer upon layer through which to delve. And as downhearted as the album can be, it’s still possible to see through the gloom to the hope on the other side, even if it takes an act of faith to spot it. As winter approaches and cold seeps into our bones, there are few albums better suited to raging against the dying of the light.