(SOLARIS EMPIRE; Swedish import, 2016)
It’s not easy reviewing an artist as important as Sweden’s Sofia Hardig. She is a singer/songwriter who pushes the thematic and conceptual envelope beyond what we associate with that category, a rock guitarist who is not interested in showing off on the instrument and sometimes buries the sound or zeroes in on one little minimal tone, an electronica innovator who is after something far more ambitious in her compositions than simply making you dance or showing you the cool sounds she can generate on her latest equipment. No, Sofia is after something more significant, something more primal and mysterious, something that is a bit of a secret unless you can either get on her wavelength or follow the “light” she alludes to on this new recording down to, well, the literal or metaphorical “sea” this music tells you to experience. Hardig is concerned about humanity, about things fractured or falling apart, about things sadly NOT working out the way they should because, y’know, PEOPLE and stuff. She is a lonely spokeswoman for angst-ridden characters searching for meaning, but she is not interested in spelling everything out clearly. You’ve got to think a little. “Let, let, let, let love in,” she declares on the opening “Streets,” obviously a universal sentiment, but she sings it like she is surrounded by men with weapons pointed right at her, with a few clangorous chords refusing to let the sentiment simply make its way easily to your ears. Few female artists so convey the urgency of an emotion the way Hardig does. She’s been doing it over the course of half a dozen stellar releases for the past decade or so, and you get the sense that her work is equal parts therapy and humanitarian dissertation. Yet this stuff does rock madly, as on the frenzied “Swim” which is a pretty sexy atonal little creation that INSISTS you listen to it.
“The Norm” is primarily a spoken word rant that finds Hardig addressing the “Citizens of the world” somewhat straightforwardly. “It’s not right what they do. They’re not experts on anything. But they think they are. Because they read a little line about what your heart should be. And what your eyes should be. And what your dreams should be. But they’re not right. We know better, you and I,” Hardig declares, then singing the repeated refrain “Keep dreamin,’ baby,” which I like to think is aimed at both the populace that desperately needs to keep having uplifting dreams for a better future, and the oppressive forces almost everywhere these days, that mistakenly THINK they can continue to run things as badly as they have. Hardig has absolute authority throughout this music, and most artists could not pull it off. The clanging, supercharged squall of music behind her helps considerably. Nothing lilting or easy about this sound in any way. It’s gloriously messy and discordant. “Sitting Still” is an ironic title for the next song, which is an ass-kicking rocker that brings to mind Hardig’s countrymen in the band the Knife, who covered some of this sonic territory on their last release, SHAKING THE HABITUAL. The tune just surges madly through a battlefield of opposing forces… no bridge, no chorus, just a furious, short flight past a stressful landscape of the worst of humanity. That’s how it struck me, anyway. After that, “Closed Eyes” is ALMOST lulling, but not quite. There’s a steady rhythm, and some carefully constructed verses, but Hardig’s vocal can’t settle for being merely emotionally resigned and descriptive… real pain rises up in her delivery and the sonic assault of the music is beautifully fierce and controlled, reminding in moments of the Doors on “The End,” the Velvet Underground or various other artists you may think you’ve heard. But this stuff is mostly stunningly original.
“Low and Slow” is another slam bang rocker, with the guitar firepower turned up high, and Hardig’s underlying punk attitude sneeringly coming to the surface. Only PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde come at all to mind when I listen to Hardig, and that’s more because they have a similar kind of absolute authority and rock and roll pedigree, rather than what the music actually does. Hardig comes across as a lonely warrior on these tracks, a woman who looks at the reality of both human folly and the flaws in the human psyche that lessen the quality of relationships and the chance for normalcy. On the brittle, repetitive “Bring It Home,” she seems on the verge of losing it, but the music is absolutely compelling in its driving simplicity and fearless edge. There’s a remix of it (along with one for “Closed Eyes”) on which the lyrics are a bit easier to hear, and the guitars seem to imitate a police siren several times, wailing towards the scene of an emotional crime that has probably inflicted tons of damage. “I lost control of my mind/I’m just skin and bones by your side/I’m layin’ all alone in despair/I can’t control this love that I lost/Come on honey now, bring it home!” Hardig darkly recites, suddenly blasting out those last two lines over and over, and it’s a blistering refrain that takes your ears prisoner while your feet tap along admiringly. With most of these songs, you can’t possibly hope to know the full story. But you don’t NEED to with this Swedish firebrand of a musician; you’ll hear enough and understand enough to get lost in the electrifying power of modern electronic rock and roll, and marvel at the way that mysterious thing called EDGE still exists, at least in whatever studio this woman works in. Sofia Hardig is a welcome antidote to slick audience-pleasing formulas, and a cry in the artistic wilderness for challenging what true self-expression in music should be, with anger and despair rising up to club bland acceptance and positive thinking mantras right over their thick skulls, guitars blazing and passion-infused vocals helping to land the blows. She’s a truly important, powerful sonic auteur who is slowly building a peerless recording catalogue that deserves the full attention of rock fans around the world.