Despite her surname, Stella Sommer’s solo debut, and her first sung in English rather than her native German, is an album with a decidedly icy chill.
Normally found fronting Hamburg band Die Heiterkeit, her solo album is a more esoteric affair. Anna Von Hausswolff’s Dead Magic and Zola Jesus’ stunning Okovi are touchstones here, but where the instrumentation on those albums enveloped the vocals somewhat, 13 Kinds Of Happiness, performed by members of her band alongside fellow German act Messer is sparse and uncomplicated, firmly placing Sommer as the focal point.
Her contralto vocals are clipped and staccato in parts due to performing in a secondary language, and we’re firmly in Nico/Marianne Faithful territory here. Sometimes just accompanied by guitar, others just piano, with waves of glacial atmospherics, 13 Kinds Of Happiness is dark, but there's hopeless beauty in abundance.
The opening title track uses the one note synth trick to develop dramatic soundscapes while adding disembodied oddball sounds and cold waves of shoegaze influenced synth. It’s a moment so musically vivid you can almost see the dark disused church behind the shadowy figure, lit only by the almost burnt out candle struggling to stay alight against the cold of the midnight air.
Sommer sits on the outside of conventional pop, extracting little elements as she sees fit. Tracks such as "A Certain Glow" invoke casual indie pop, the riffy, reverby "Do You Still Love Me Now" is a cosy cousin of Pumarosa, while "Dark Princess, Dark Prince" is strident, almost belligerent. When she swoons “Don’t go and miss me / I can stay / I’m only a light wind away” over minimal piano, synth and xylophones on "Light Winds", the fusion of the saccharine and the gloomy is enthralling.
The album really hits its stride when the darkness is turned up. The lilting guitars and funereal organs on the ambiguous "We Love You To Death" give the false impression of a love song; yet as Sommer darkly announces “I must leave you with a scar that never shows", it's delivered with clinical, experienced precision. The dark organs, crashing cymbals and backing vocal harmonies on "I Take An Interest" is reminiscent of the post-Smile, pre-'70s material by The Beach Boys, while the brooding announcement to “Leave me alone tonight / You don’t talk…and that’s JUST FINE / In the middle of a fight, I get to sing your lullaby” shows that on occasion, a moment of sweetness is an effective cloak for the razor-sharp.
If you sympathise with Lana Del Rey’s misery-gone-pop aesthetic, but find her happy/sad schtick disingenuous, you’ll find 13 Kinds Of Happiness’ gothic charm and lack of frippery to be simple and effective.