When I first sought out “non-mainstream” music as a teenager, I only listened to male artists. This is not hyperbole. I would tell people directly that I preferred listening to men. It was something in their voices, I’d say. Something in their ways with words. Fourteen-year-old me thought she noticed a trend: girls sing cheesy pop songs that only make you want to dance while boys sing complex songs that make you want to sit contemplatively cross-legged in front of your record player, doing nothing but listening along.
Back then, I decided I was done being a “typical” young teen girl, so I all but shunned everything I thought was meant for me and bought every Shins and Death Cab for Cutie record I could find. Preferring male artists was my idea of being complex and edgy.
It took a few years for me to like pop again and it took even longer for me to gain interest in artists like St. Vincent, or, even later, Sharon Van Etten. But when I finally did, I learned something: We, too, can tell dark stories in song. Now, many of my favorite artists are women who wallow in the depths. Icelandic artist Sóley’s new album, Ask the Deep, does just that.
Sóley’s new album, which came out May 8 from Morr Music, is a bit of a departure from her previous full-length album, We Sink, which was more rooted in folk and classical piano. It’s even more of a departure from her work as a member of seven-piece folk band Seabear. While those influences remain, here, they’re much looser. Here, they are where she jumps from, not where she lands.
Sóley’s voice reminds me of Brian Aubert, the lead singer for Silversun Pickups, whose own voice is something of a pivot off the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. I wouldn’t go as far as directly linking Sóley and Corgan; Sóley has higher highs and a much airier tone. But like Corgan, Sóley isn’t afraid to sing about the deep, deep dark. Where those bands are heavy in their instrumentation, though, on Ask the Deep, Sóley is more sparse. She obtains her eeriness and her darkness primarily through airiness instead of grit. This is a morbid album, especially lyrically—the opening lyrics are “Have I danced with the devil? Does he still love me?” But instead of a constant dirge-like heaviness, the album showcases its more morose qualities through numerous crescendos and a slow layering of instruments, like a spreading inkblot on a stark white sheet of paper. It’s these moments—the simultaneous floating and digging—that really shine. The best example of this is “Follow Me Down,” a real stunner of a song, with its hypnotic vocal slide.
According to KEXP, another standout track, “Ævintýr”—which translates to “adventure”—is based on the true story of a Brazilian man who was buried alive and clawed himself out. The song begins with a spare beat and slowly expands upward, eventually becoming punctuated by gasping sounds. “You must face your fairytale,” Sóley sings in the soaring chorus, and by the song’s end—returned back to the beat of the beginning—we’re left wondering whether the “once upon a time” is to be found in the man’s burial or in his exhumation.
Ask the Deep is an album that buries its roots further the more you listen to it. It’s the kind of album—pop-adjacent and self-assured—that I wish I could have heard when I was a young girl. There’s something in her voice, something in her way with words that makes me happy to follow her down.
Jess Kibler is a Portland writer who now listens to more women than men. She’s also Bitch Media’s New Media intern.