Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Dead Magic, the fourth album from Swedish singer and pianist Anna Von Hausswolff.
Can you find beauty in death? Final though it may be, artists have spent albums, careers, lives with the hopes of answering that question at all before being erased by the forces of mortality. Swedish songwriter Anna von Hausswolff has spent her whole career not just wanting to answer that query, but to defy it in the affirmative, to reimagine the idea that death itself is something hiding a delicate form of beauty. On her fourth studio album, Dead Magic, von Hausswolff strips away the juxtaposition of light and dark, revelling instead in the dreariness of her own subconscious, but the result still haunts with moments of grace and mercy amongst the black.
The first sound you hear on Dead Magic is a crackle. It’s almost a static sound, but not quite; it more resembles the sound of a faraway body bag, of an encroaching calamity. That opens the sweeping “The Truth, The Glow, The Fall”–a three-part Odyssean epic of longing–but it is not the sound that you are waiting for. “After the fall, I’ll find you” sings von Hausswolff, joined by her trademark organ, this time recorded in Denmark’s hallowed Marmorkirken marble church. From her breakout 2013 album Ceremony and through 2015’s tar-sludged The Miraculous, the organ has been von Hausswolff’s trusty steed through the bowels of hell, and Dead Magic is no different.
Bouncing off the church walls and getting a reverberating two-faced quality, the organ’s journey within the 5-song collection sees it serve as optimism, as resignation, and as rebirth. On lead track–to call it a single, despite the music video and accompanying press blitz, would be naive–“The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra,” the organ takes its time to gain a foothold on your headspace; by the time its raucous climax is upon you, as von Hausswollf yelps “who is she, who is she to say goodbye,” the organ has become a demon, roaring death into the picture. Elsewhere, it’s the spine of the ethereal “The Marble Eye,” whose title appears to be a nod at the Marmorkirken; featuring none of von Hausswolff’s distinct vocals, the track instead sounds like the process of ascension, distilled into five minutes of song.
The centerpiece of the album is obvious from one glance at the track list: “Ugly and Vengeful” rises above the fray with both its 16-minute duration and its malevolence. This is Dante’s Inferno facing an earthquake, its despair trickling in slowly, lulling you into a false sense of security before exploding halfway through. In a way, the best comparison is something like Swans’ The Seer, only if that band were less concerned with punishing, unrelenting masculinity. Where that album featured songs to bludgeon and bruise, “Ugly and Vengeful” opts instead towards unsettling discomfort. Even when it begins to shake off the cobwebs, it feels elemental, and in its final sprint towards the finish, it still never feels quite right; the foreboding organ runs around 11 minutes in sound like something out Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover, an already delirious record turned up 100-fold by von Hausswolff.
If “Ugly and Vengeful” serves as the album’s centerpiece and descent into madness, then the closing holiness of “Källans återuppståndelse” (roughly meaning “The Resurrection of the Source” in von Hausswolff’s native Swedish) serves to ground us back into a bittersweet purgatory. On the final track of the album, the organ is backed by the return of a static sound, but this time it’s consistent; it doesn’t crackle so much as it woozes along, limping towards the beautiful end promised to us all. Here, von Hausswolff sounds resigned to her fate, and content to enjoy the last embers of her life, dissolving herself into emptiness. Even in the winters of Scandinavia, the fires burn so brightly.
Dead Magic is the first collaboration between von Hausswolff and Sunn O))) producer Randall Dunn, who wisely allows the all-consuming nature of her live shows to shine through on the record. Every instrument feels alive and vital, from the organ, to the guitar that opens “Electra,” and the marching drums on “The Truth, The Glow, The Fall.” Most important, however, is that Dunn appears to understand the importance of von Hausswolff’s voice, that vibrating soprano that has elicited comparisons to Bat for Lashes or, more commonly, Kate Bush.
Where that entire album was concerned with leaving legacies and bringing life into the world, Dead Magic is a journey through the darkest corners of von Hausswolff’s psyche, and her voice works overtime to mirror that change. It’s jarring, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also enthralling to see someone at the peak of their powers swerve left and crash into a wall with a grin on their face. Dead Magic might not be the first time that von Hausswolff comes face-to-face with death, but it’s the first time that she’s been gracious enough to let listeners come along for the ride, and it’s a ride well-worth taking.