Anna Ternheim (Decca Records, 2007)

Although Swedish songstress Anna Ternheim has released two full-length albums in Europe, this self-titled EP is her first American release. This EP may only have six songs running twenty-three minutes, but it was enough to convince me that Anna Ternheim is one of the best singer-songwriters going right now.

The album opens with a song called "Lovers Dream (Naked Version)." An alternate version, for which a video exists, was a single off of Ternheim's 2006 album Separation Road. The arrangement for this version consists only of an acoustic guitar and some orchestration beneath the vocals, but the overall effect is simply stunning. The shifting between major and minor keys, combined with some complex chord progressions, evokes some of Nick Drake's stronger material and carries a similar emotional potency. Ternheim's voice is a bit dry, but she really knows how to write melodies that not only bring out the best qualities in her singing, but enable her to effectively haunt the listener without overextending her vocal range. The second song "Bridges" is the EP's one new track. While this song features a more standard rock backing than the first one, the lyrics are actually a bit disturbing; Ternheim assumes the perspective of a person on the controlling end of what is clearly not a healthy relationship. The dissonant arrangement and harsh electric guitar further enhance the song's creepy, unsettling feel. The irony continues with "Today Is A Good Day," a happy breakup song that was another single off of Separation Road. Again, Ternheim shows a mastery of chordal structure well beyond her experience.

On "I'll Follow You Tonight," a single off her first album Somebody Outside, Ternheim sings about sticking with somebody one night longer, against her own better judgement. In addition to having a great melody in her distinctive style, this song reflects a remarkable sense of poetic balance, especially coming from a writer whose first language is not English. "And I'll follow you to any doorstep, any hallway, with hope of finding more, and not get shallow, not get bored, and find it useless, feeling meaningless, and just as low as I was high the night before." The EP also includes one cover, David Bowie's "China Girl." Ternheim does the song her way, not only bearing little similarity beyond the words to the original, but almost making you think that Bowie had intended for her to sing it all along. The last and most accessible song on the disc is "My Secret," also off of Somebody Outside. Even with an uncharacteristically positive love song, Ternheim seems to be cognizant of the risks involved. Still, this song is very catchy and singable.

Like Beth Orton, Anna Ternheim is not the kind of singer you go to when you're in the mood for some feel-good fluff. An evidently displeased poster below a YouTube video of another of her songs suggested that "People that can write such lyrics should be locked up." But I've always found dark music to be therapeutic, and the songs on this EP compare favorably with Orton's best songs. Given how highly I regard Orton's albums like Central Reservation and Daybreaker, that's saying a hell of a lot. I wouldn't rate Anna Ternheim quite as highly as I'd rate Pina, my favorite performer of the decade, at least not yet -- the originality in Pina's music and vocals still takes the cake. But Anna Ternheim is the superior lyricist, and like Pina she has a scary amount of raw talent. This EP would have been no worse than #2 on my top 10 list for 2007, and it already sets the bar for 2008 pretty high.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

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