It has been an amazing year for pop music. This year we have had releases from Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Jessie Ware and even Kylie Minogue is about to release her Disco record in November. There has been a pattern with these albums. All of them share a sound palette that is upbeat, direct and irresistibly melodic. They are albums that provide a simulacrum of a dancefloor, as the real thing has had to surrender to the pandemic. Norwegian singer/songwriter Annie hasn’t followed suit. Her first album in over a decade, Dark Hearts, provides some much-needed space for reflection.
I can understand why many artists have increased the BPM on their records this year. Or how many female artists have peppered their albums with disco references. When we were first in lockdown, pop music was a source of entertainment. Saturated by the news, the uncertainty of what was going to happen and our new work from home set up, pop music was what we used to navigate ourselves through all the chaos. It gave us pleasure.
On Dark Hearts, Annie ditches her trademark leftfield, often tongue in cheek approach to pop (Chewing Gum and I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me). There are fewer remnants of previous albums Anniemal and Don’t Stop. There aren’t any pop heavyweight producers like Brian Higgins and Richard X. Instead, it’s a much more capacious record, produced by Stefan Storm from The Sound of Arrows.
I like Annie’s new direction. It feels appropriate for the autumnal backdrop as we head into winter with a pandemic still in full force. More interestingly, it reflects the shift from our initial optimism that the pandemic would be over in a few months, to the sad reality, that unfortunately, it is around to stay.
I am not saying that the albums I mentioned earlier have lost their power, and without a doubt, I am excited about the new Kylie record, I just feel that Annie’s new album with its relatable nostalgia and introspection fits in perfectly with the world’s current emotional state.
The Streets Where I Belong has echoes of Bruce Springsteen, the 80s influenced track that documents the story of Annie meeting her first love. Forever 92′ additionally perpetuates this message, with a bit more oomph, it’s faster, slightly more euphoric at times, but it still has its pathos. It is in an interesting track nonetheless, The Cocteau Twins inspired guitar at the start could be from a different song altogether.
Dark Hearts also reinforces the notion of the present moment. Despite the bulk of the album being about Annie’s past and her sentimental retrospective of falling in love, the death of her boyfriend and her return to Norway tracks like In Heavenand Stay Tomorrow look at the opposite. There is, therefore, a slice of optimism on this album, perhaps what we would normally expect from Annie.
There is also room for fantasy, and many of the songs possess a cinematic aura. Lead single American Cars sounds like a snapshot from the film Drive. Mermaid Dreams drips in a seductive spoken-word monologue before becoming a wave of electroclash as it intensifies in its instrumental towards the end. Corridors of Time is this haunting recollection of the ghost of an old love. Melodic enough to be likened to Abba due to the presence of a chorus, then again, it’s the arpeggio of the guitar that renders it more experimental.
I do think that Annie’s sentimental record feels more nostalgic because I associate her with my own nostalgia. I discovered Annie in 2004. I remember feeling triumphant as if I’d discovered a pop secret nobody else knew about. When I think back to 2004, I think of freedom. I think of earning money for the first time and sneaking into pubs in Manchester, hoping that I wouldn’t get caught drinking half a lager and black in the ominous, Picaddilly Tavern which was the closest bar to my bus stop.
Nostalgia is often seen as a dirty word. Many see it as a form of weakness, or at least in the pantheon of self-help books. I feel as though the pandemic has made us embrace nostalgia more than ever. What we once took for granted no longer feels banal, normality has never looked so appealing. The reaction to Dark Hearts will not be as instantaneous as Chromatica by Lady Gaga or Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa, but it is an album that reveals another side to pop, and more importantly, another side to Annie.