Anna Ternheim, Halfway to Fivepoints (Decca, 2008)

A couple of months ago, Anna Ternheim released a self-titled EP which I reviewed very favorably here. The six songs on Anna Ternheim were gleaned from two full-length albums and a handful of EP's that have been available in her native Sweden and the rest of Europe for a while, but the EP was her debut American release. A full-length album and tour were promised for the spring, and Halfway to Fivepoints came out in late April. Most of the songs on Halfway to Fivepoints were also previously released in Europe, but a few tracks are new. But the album reflects the same remarkable songwriting ability that caused me to rate the EP so highly.

Everything I say about Anna Ternheim needs to come with the disclaimer that all her songs come from a very dark place. Ternheim's work follows in the footsteps of the early recordings of Sarah McLachlan and Beth Orton, in that she taps into emotional depths that most people would just as soon pretend aren't there. However, despite English not being her native language, Ternheim combines a stark lyrical directness with a great poetic sensibility, to a degree that McLachlan and Orton can't match. The subject matter of the lyrics is often quite intense, and Ternheim frequently sings from the perspective of characters who don't necessarily reflect herself or are even admirable. On "Bridges," for example, Ternheim takes on the role of the controlling person in a very unhealthy relationship. On "Such A Lonely Soul," the woman in the song contemplates how to keep her lover's wife in the dark about what's going on. "Why trouble her lonely soul, she doesn't have to know, why tell her, it would hurt her so," Ternheim sings with no small amount of irony. Even the happiest song on the album, "Today Is a Good Day," is about a break-up.

Musically, Ternheim and producer Andreas Dählback aim for a cross between folk and alternative. Ternheim generally sounds more in her element on the quieter material, both with her own compositions and with her cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies." Like her cover of "China Girl" on the EP, Ternheim sings "Little Lies" in her own distinct style, and the cover is both radically different from, and considerably more compelling than, the original. On the album's best track "No Subtle Men," Ternheim sings about continuing to turn suitors away even though she's not so young anymore, and the conflict of emotions that result. By contrast, the arrangements on the album's rock songs don't always do the lyrics justice. "To Be Gone," an otherwise strong song about teenage depression, felt too retrained to be, while the electric version of "Lovers Dream" sounds cluttered compared to the stunning orchestrated acoustic version the was released on the EP.

In fact, despite having twice as many songs as the EP, Halfway to Fivepoints isn't quite as good. The EP's two strongest songs, "I'll Follow You Tonight" and "My Secret," are both better than anything included here. I also didn't see the point of having two songs overlap on both releases, and I'm really sorry they didn't include the song "Better Be" that I've seen on YouTube. Having said all that, Halfway to Fivepoints is still a solid release, full of extremely well written but very challenging, unnerving songs that are both beautiful and brutal in their emotional impact.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


digitaldoc said...

Kind of reminds me of Shawn Colvin who is also acoustic & dark, and blends a folk and alternative sound.

smg58 said...

There are some similarities, although Shawn isn't THIS dark. She never made this big of an impression on me either, although my brother likes Shawn Colvin a lot and has seen her a whole bunch of times.

digitaldoc said...

Colvin never made that big of an impression on me either, but her songs are definitely a downer to listen to. For whatever reason, I have two of her albums in my collection.