An idiosyncratic use of the English language, a seemingly impenetrable mystique, and songs that balance emotional expressiveness with a kind of northerly chill — when it comes to Scandinavian singer-songwriters, Ane Brun ticks many of the boxes. While in recent years contemporaries of hers like Robyn or Lykke Li have built increasingly successful pop careers on these foundations, Brun has always been different. More a serious chanteuse than a pop princess, she has nevertheless found a warm response in her native Norway. Her 2008 album Changing of the Seasons was no exception, even raising her profile in the English-speaking world, but her silence since then has robbed her of momentum. With little in the way of fanfare, Brun starts again with It All Starts With One.
This new beginning, it turns out, is an unpredictable one. While first single “Do You Remember” was jaunty, upbeat and built largely of drums, it is also completely unrepresentative of its parent album. Instead, the bulk of these songs switch the nimble songwriting of Seasons for a grand but languid command of mood. Gone is the accessibility of a song like “The Puzzle”, replaced by the pendulous six minutes of “Worship”, featuring a less-than-integral guest spot by José González. Brun’s acoustic formula and songwriting smarts are still here; she has just taken the decision to move into darker, less familiar, and even more subdued territory. It is a risky move, and one that pays off only in certain respects.
Brun’s music has always felt calculated and restrained, but she now orchestrates the songs so deliberately that they frequently sound born to the grave, mummified in their own production. After piano and acoustic guitar, strings are the most important instrumental feature of the record and as expertly arranged as they are, they introduce a kind of coldness that can come between us and the feelings of the songs. More damagingly, there is scarcely a single hook to be found on the album’s ten songs. Put simply, It All Starts With One is Ane Brun in accessibility meltdown.
Of course, all this is not necessarily problematic — that the record is such an aggressively cohesive and singular statement could appeal to album-oriented listeners. It is more likely, however, that these listeners and even the Brun faithful will be frustrated with the lack of memorable moments and the profusion of songs that, like “Worship” and “Undertow”, can feel like bulky pills to swallow rather than actively enjoyable tunes.
Seriousness and focus have long been selling points for Brun’s music, an alternative to the sometimes irrepressibly buoyant nature of Scandi-pop. Having said this, it is possible to have too much of a good thing and It All Starts With One will likely be remembered as the point when Brun lost a little of her deftness of touch and breadth of emotion. Where Seasons ended with a moving and acclaimed cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, It All Starts With One sounds like Brun in black and white. Ultimately, it is difficult to see this heavy and difficult album as anything but a significant misstep and a genuine disappointment — hopefully it is one from which Brun will swiftly recover.