The fact that i’ve only written about Swedish musician Jonna Lee‘s music very occasionally belies the fact that i feel she’s one of the most inventive singer-songwriters at work today. This has been the case from the outset of her revamped career in late 2009, when she was posting anonymous YouTube videos that got everyone wondering who on earth was creating this stuff, through her three albums as iamamiwhoami, all of which have featured towards the top of my Best Album of the Years lists: kin in 2012, bounty in 2013 and Blue in 2014. Since then, she’s undergone something of an enigmatic identity shift, combining her old and new personas into ionnalee, a hint that her work is now a bit more personal.
Her new album, Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten, is released today. i’ve been listening to it a lot throughout this week, and while it’s still early days in terms of really getting to know its fifteen songs, first impressions indicate that, despite her name change, they’re a clear continuation and development of the characteristics that made her music as iamamiwhoami so fresh and exhilarating. Above all, i was struck again by the way that although Lee uses conventional verse-chorus structures in her songs, they never sound remotely formulaic. That’s partly due to the creative ways that structure is used, confused and occasionally abused in her work, but mostly down to her unique mixture of irresistible beat and bass combinations and anthemic choruses, presented with utterly forthright conviction.
Speaking of those choruses, it’s tempting when listening to Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten to come to the conclusion that Jonna Lee’s songwriting approach begins with the choruses, afterwards working out the details of how these climactic moments will be approached. They really are enormously potent: in ‘Watches Watches’ they’re sudden brief outbursts (more a refrain than a chorus in this case) in the midst of soft noodlings, whereas in ‘Not Human’ it’s on the scale of the euphoria heard in 2014’s ‘Fountain‘, showcasing how awesome Lee’s voice is when she really lets rip. ‘Samaritan’ and ‘Gone’ are equally breathtaking in this respect, but they each highlight another fascinating aspect running throughout the album, to do with tempo.
There are numerous instances where the tempo of a song is made ambiguous, the first hints of which occur in second track ‘Joy’, which is deceptively faster than it seems or feels. But following this, in those two songs i mentioned as well as ‘Work’, ‘Dunes of Sand’ and ‘Harvest’, there’s a continual pulling between two tempi, the chorus double that of the verses and surrounding material. There are further twists and complications: ‘Watches Watches’ and ‘Dunes of Sand’ (a lovely duet with Jamie Irrepressible, whose exquisite voice has been too long out of my ears) use a time signature of 7/4 – instantly making me think of Aaron Funk, which goes to show how intimately that’s part of his music – while ‘Memento’ and final track ‘Fold’ use compound metres in a way that nicely messes with our heads. ‘Memento’ is in a slow 12/4 that seamlessly switches to 4/4 for the choruses (with no change of quaver speed, but sounding like a huge gear shift); ‘Fold’ appears to be in 3/4 but the way the beats are emphasised means it could just as if not more convincingly be in 6/8 (hemiolas-a-go-go!). These techniques, disorienting our perceptions of what’s going on, make these songs so much more exciting and involving.
Something that’s been a feature of Lee’s music as iamamiwhoami is a distinct but hard to define evocation of music from an earlier time. It would be pushing it to call it ‘retro’, but the allusions to earlier forms of electropop and new wave are impossible to ignore and an integral part of what makes her music so engaging, with its subtle reinvention of those ideas. On Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten the scope of this evocation has widened: ‘Joy’ starts out sounding like a sequel to Kraftwerk’s ‘Hall of Mirrors‘ but ends up closer to a kind of ’80s rock anthem; ‘Simmer Down’ begins in a similar vein, but then demonstrably dispels its allusions by launching into full-blooded contemporary electronica. ‘Dunes of Sand’ suggests that it’s going to turn into a mess of classic mid-’70s Tangerine Dream synth arpeggios before lurching away into more darkly lyrical territory. These are clever but unaffected ways of making connections to the past without resorting to cheap quotations and borrowed ideas. If similarities to other artists’ music are to be drawn, though, the most significant and meaningful – in terms of both imagination and aesthetic, though not style – is to Björk. Listen to the shuffling, leisurely atmosphere, main melody and combined plinky-plonks and grungy beats of ‘Like Hell’ or the wash-laden dream pop of ‘Here is a Warning’ and it’s abundantly clear that the extent of Jonna Lee’s vision and aspirations has expanded considerably, in much the same way as Björk from the time of Homogenic onwards. Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten is a lot more than just electronica and infectious synthpop; taken as a whole it sounds like an ambitious statement (or re-statement) of intent. This album could have ended up as a collection of worthwhile but failed experiments, yet it’s anything but: this is a confident, convincing and radical re-imagining that, more than ever before in Jonna Lee’s work, leaps beyond the confines of genre into a place that’s much less defined and relatively uncharted.
Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten is available in various formats: primarily as a CD/DVD combo (as with her previous releases, there’s an accompanying film) with a lyric book, as well as vinyl and digital download options, all available both from the To Whom It May Concern shop; the digital download is also available from ionnalee’s Bandcamp site (digital downloads come with a PDF of the lyric book).