As the sun begins to fade…
Dark Hearts, the latest studio album from Annie, is billed as “the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.” It’s an apt description for a collection of songs that have a cinematic vision to them. At times evocative and intimate; others, euphoric and inspired, Darks Hearts marks a stunning accomplishment in the Norwegian singer/songwriter’s already impressive catalogue.
The album also sees Annie teaming up with Stefan Storm (The Sound Of Arrows), whose magical pop credentials are well served on the songs on offer here (Annie also contributed to The Sound Of Arrows 2017 Album Stay Free).
Dark Hearts has been an album that’s taken a long time to complete, with initial writing starting in 2016 when Annie was living in Berlin. She’s also tackled being a judge on Norwegian Idol as well as dealing with the challenges of motherhood during the songwriting process. But taking that additional time on the production of the album has delivered results, with Dark Hearts emerging as a slick, confident album bursting with invention and inspiration.
Raising the bar is quite a challenge considering that Annie made her reputation via the likes of solid tunes including ‘Heartbeat’, ‘Songs Remind Me of You’ and ‘Anthonio’, all engaging electropop moments topped off by the Norwegian musician’s distinctive whispery vocals.
As an album, Dark Hearts manages to strike a perfect balance: leaning into the past (often with some synthwave flourishes), but also delivering some exemplary modern pop tunes.
Tracks like album opener ‘In Heaven’ has a smoky retro vibe going on. Annie’s ethereal vocals drift over lush synth soundscapes, nailing that cinematic feel and essentially showcasing the style and themes of the album in one go.
But the track that will likely resonate most with diehard Annie fans is ‘The Streets Where I Belong’. There’s a bittersweet quality at work here on a song that has a deceptively simple arrangement, its magic working through the lush production and the mesmerising draw of Annie’s narrative (“Annie, Annie they’re playing our song/And for a moment I’m transported to where I’m from”).
Originally released as a single from the album, the song is a potted biography of Annie’s own musical journey, the evocative lyrics mapping out much of the events that landmarked her extraordinary career. It’s a wistful adventure full of hope (and also tragedy) but also illustrates how our formative experiences will always be home to us.
The album’s compelling title track continues that theme, exploring memory and the idea that “We can’t escape who we are”. Meanwhile, ‘Miracle Mile’ delivers a gauzy dreamscape dominated by Annie’s breathy vocal delivery.
The spoken film narrative that precedes ‘Corridors of Time’ sets up an amazingly immersive composition that evokes the spirit of Julee Cruise. The song focuses on “being trapped in the middle of time: looking back, and looking ahead; it’s the story of a dancefloor in a theatre, empty except for an older couple dancing together and a young girl dancing alone.” But it’s also the heart of the album, a beautiful hymnal that has a timeless quality to it.
Elsewhere, the engaging melodies of ‘Forever ’92’ evoke the magical themes of The Sound Of Arrows on another little reverie about memory and the past.
Meanwhile, ‘American Cars’ offers up some nods to synthwave with its twilight pop approach. Warm layers of synths and a restrained percussion provide a slick foundation for Annie’s mesmerising voice. Evocative lines such as “I let go of the wheel and take over my heart/So before we crash kiss me under the stars” have a siren-like call to them, giving the whole composition a beguiling dreamlike quality.
“It was partly inspired by the David Cronenberg film Crash” comments Annie on the new song, “It was 2pm and the only other people in the cinema were two old men, a mum and her screaming baby, and sixteen-year-old me. It was quite a strange experience. The film is about pushing it to the edge. When you’re looking for something dark you don’t necessarily know why you’re doing it. But you’re pushing the boundaries. You can fall, or almost fall, but you climb back.”
‘Stay Tomorrow’ has a Gallic sweep to it, allowing Annie to deliver a chanteuse mood to lines such as “You cannot sail away/Sometimes our words will fade.” It’s a track with an emotional impact, boosted by the heartbreaking power of the chorus, underpinned by polished synth work.
There’s something reminiscent of Lola Dutronic on ‘The Countdown to the End of the World’, with its breezy pop acting as a counterpoint to a witty take on a darker topic. Here, the bolder percussion also gives the song’s airy delivery an additional contrast.
Equally, ‘The Bomb’ seems to run against the overarching themes of the album with its frenetic rhythms, samples and sharper edges. It’s a fine moment, but does seem to be the outlier on Dark Hearts.
The album then reverts to its previous dreampop leanings on the achingly enchanting ‘The Untold Story’, which sounds as if it’s dropped out of a lost David Lynch movie. It’s dripping with synth washes and a cosmic vocal that suggests its a composition dropped in from the universe next door.
The album bows out with the suitably titled ‘It’s Finally Over’. There’s a quirky Americana feel to this song, which also invokes more comparisons to Lola Dutronic with Annie’s easy-going vocal delivery and use of melodrama (“All the tears I was crying/God I thought I was dying”).
In essence, Dark Hearts is a superb album that embraces a wistful melancholia with some stylishly crafted melodies which, during a fairly glum year, offers a solace of sorts. It’s also an album that shows Annie remains at the peak of her musical powers.
Dark Hearts is out now.