Pop mini-album hides shocking depth

Norwegian Anana’s Well, at times discordant, will keep you coming back for more

Album cover for Well, Anana

Photo courtesy of KOSO, © KristineHelliesen
The album cover for Well.

Sean LaFleur
New York

Over the past few years Norwegian musicians have had a consistent presence in the top tiers of American pop charts and on radio—from the slick but goofy novelty ballad “What Does The Fox Say?” by Ylvis, to the pretty cascade of Afrobeat-tinged guitars in “Am I Wrong?” by Nico & Vinz, to the anthemic yet also softly ethereal “It Ain’t Me” by Kygo.

Hopefully, the success of these artists will lead American record labels and tastemakers to dive deeper into discovering current Norwegian pop music, and maybe even explore Norwegian pop that, while still compelling and satisfying, is not as immediately sugary and bright as the aforementioned hit songs.

A singer of this kind that seems ready to break out to wider recognition and acclaim is Oslo-based Anniken Jess Iversen, or, as she calls herself on her releases, Anana.

In addition to being a vocalist, Anana is also a multi-instrumentalist and producer, and has released a handful of singles over the past several years. In November she debuted her longest recording to date, Well, a mini-album of six songs.

On first impression, Well should succeed with most casual listeners on its strengths of simply being a very pleasing collection of melodic, pretty, ethereal pop songs.

You’ll likely want to listen again because of this dreamy sound—but it’s then, on the subsequent times you hear it, that this small album’s large amount of depth and craft begins to reveal itself. While six songs adding up to just over 20 minutes might seem brief, because Anana so carefully builds moods and often weaves in soothingly familiar and oddly unfamiliar sound textures, these songs, when listened to in their intended order, feel much like movements in a symphony. The roughly 23 minutes of Well feels more expansive and transporting than many complete albums.

Anniken Jess Iversen, or Anana

Photo courtesy of KOSO, © KristineHelliesen
Anniken Jess Iversen, better known as Anana.

Not very far beneath the overall cozy melancholy mood is a nearly constant alternating between sounds that are at one moment tender or lovely, but the next tense or ominous.

The dark image of the title of album’s opening song, “Rip Off Every Toe,” as well as how Anana’s pretty cooing soon swells and echoes—morphing from lullaby tones to sounding like a chilly whistling wind—begins to quickly establish all is not as cozy as it seems.

“Selfish Fish On Land” begins solely with what sounds like a homemade recording of gravel shuffling around in a pants pocket used in a repeating loop as percussion. Slightly portentous piano and lyrics about being “all alone this time” join the repeating gravel loop, but then, all of a sudden, loveliness breaks out—Anana’s crisp vocal softens to a tender falsetto for the chorus. Shortly after a build of what sounds like a recording of scraping metal on concrete, this falsetto melody appears again, with Anana singing, “my heart, it broke”—as if she just noticed, a quick but touching, vulnerable moment among the dissonance.

“To Hold” places moods of comfort and threat so close together that the two become almost indistinguishable, as dirge-like synthesizer melodies reverberate under Anana’s cozy repeated hums. The song then builds to its end by pairing the lyrics “to hold” alternately with “you down” and “you tight”—the former usually a negative, the latter often a positive—but in this moment the two options seem the like same thing.

Even “Vague,” the song from the album that seems at first to be the most straightforward pop tune, has subtle elements of otherworldliness. The song begins with a piano’s melancholy but pretty notes, adds in a wistful, crisply delivered verse, then brings in a big, sweeping chorus that is one of the album’s most gorgeous moments. But in the final third of the song, the gauzy comfort is displaced a bit by tension and industrial-sounding noise, as electronic sounds of submarine-like pinging and steam escaping pipes rise up to silence all but a lonely vocal, until, at the end, just for a few seconds, a short bit of the song plays backwards.

All this switching of mood, while noble in challenging a listener’s expectations, could easily come off as more admirable than satisfying—in other words, something that makes you think, but doesn’t make you crave hearing the songs again.

But Anana has a keen sense of the often limited patience of the pop listener’s ear. She never lets the music get too discordant for too long before coming back to a hook, or she uses the homemade recorded sounds to create regular repeated rhythmic patterns that integrate nicely with—and humanize—the more familiar electronic riffs and blips. Most of all, though, Anana is quite adept at using her voice to suddenly leap, or slowly bend, into and out of all kinds of expression. There’s an icy, austere vocal for a bitter lyric; a falsetto for a regret; hushed coos for tenderness or uncertainty.

No matter what the mood, though, Anana’s vocals all somehow sound strikingly beautiful and inviting, and it’s that above all that draws you in to the album’s deeper world—where the rough and the harsh seem to always be just up ahead from the soft and gentle—as well as the other way around.

Sean LaFleur is a DJ based in New York City. A favorite specialty of his is incorporating music from a crowd’s heritage(s) at his events. His website is www.djnewyorkcity.com.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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