Highasakite’s third international album has been awaited with growing interest, not least by your reviewer, as it is the first one since the band reverted to its initial constitution of a duo, that of founders Ingrid Helene Håvik and Trond Bersu, as three others, all top class musicians and writers in their own right, went their own ways.
I have previously expressed concern that a change of emphasis towards a mainstream pop style that was evident in their (Håvik/Bersu) collaboration with Norwegian writers and producers Stargate on the single ‘5 Million Miles’ in 2017 was creeping into their work generally and was equally apparent in at least some of the four singles they released during 2018. It seemed to be a painful shift away from the intelligent indie pop that had attracted me and many others to Highasakite in the first place and I even went so far as to suggest Ingrid may have been badly advised on her future direction.
The first album, ‘Silent Treatment’ chronicled Håvik’s personal life and demons, with references to deceased lovers, margin-of-society acquaintances who vanished into thin air, her (self)-destructive propensities and domestic abuse. It was hard-hitting. “Oh I used to smother his pride, he was lifting me by the hair; oh, I used to smother his pride, he was dragging me down the stairs”, she sang on the self-explanatory ‘Leaving no traces’.
‘Camp Echo’, named after the isolation unit at Guantanamo Bay, was a different kettle of fish as Håvik turned her attention to global politics, with one character, a notorious U.S. Marine commander, appearing in two different songs, one of them concerned with the similarly infamous siege of Fallujah in Iraq, while ‘My name is liar’ parodied just about every world leader connected with the Second Gulf War. Even then though, she found room for the beautiful ‘God don’t leave me’ which again returned to her personal predicament as a teenager.
Almost three years on the new/old Highasakite has been shaped by the band’s splitting up, Ingrid having a baby and, as she said in connection with the release of the first single, her desire to reach out and rediscover why she started writing in the first place. While she is the main writer, Trond Bersu should not be overlooked. Both of them are Trondheim Conservatory trained (that’s where they met) and Bersu was always a lot more than just ‘the drummer’ (and a highly accomplished one at that), now turning his attention to keyboards and production as well on ‘Uranium Heart’.
Three of those four 2018 singles are included on the new album: the first one, ‘Out of Order’; ‘Mexico’ which is in two parts; and ‘I call bullshit’. The one that isn’t is ‘Elastic State of Mind’, surprisingly perhaps as it is the one which apparently made the biggest impact in Norway.
And so, the acid test. How would these contrasts in Ingrid’s life, and their previous work, impact on the 11-track ‘Uranium Heart’? If at all?
‘Too Early’ gets the album under way magnificently, Ingrid’s unique, occasionally soaring, almost supernatural voice immediately evident just as it was on ‘Lover, where do you live?’ the first song on ‘Silent Treatment’. A slow ballad with a complex, underscoring keys arrangement. Ethereal, perfectly weighted, and subtly beautiful.
In contrast, ‘Revolution’ is a bit of synth-based plodder, barely enlightened by a middle eight of any great quality.
When I reviewed ‘I call bullshit’, a song that is a call-to-arms for party animals, as a single I made reference to Ingrid’s endearing use of her own language, one I call Norwegish. “Who cares if we are wrong or right, let’s live like we are out of night” is one of her more comprehensible efforts here. But the strength of the song is in its unusual melody, its complex arrangements and the harmonies that make you yearn for Marte Eberson still to be there on backing vocals in live shows.
‘Mexico’ was the fourth and last single to be released. It gets underway as a gentle ballad, before an almighty chorus kicks in, with Ingrid’s vocals soaring again and she sounds a little like Susanne Sundfør in places on this one; listen to the way she nasally drones “a fox in a henhouse’. It is overlaid with complex synths and Trond Bersu’s trademark booming percussion. Guaranteed to be a live show favourite.
‘Mexico Part 2’ is a short and haunting reprise of the main song.
‘Hail of bullets’ sounds from the title as if it is on the wrong album and should be on ‘Camp Echo’ instead. But there’s none of the brutality of that work in it, in fact it reminds me more of songs of the gentle calibre of ‘Man on the Ferry’ and ‘Science and Blood Tests’ on the first album as Ingrid questions whether her opposite number has a heart, a pulse, a soul and ears to listen. The melody isn’t striking but it is interspersed by some imposing synth work from Bersu.
‘Out of Order’ has the strongest melody on the album so far and there are again some powerful reminders of the sound and atmosphere they fabricated on the first album complete with her propensity to “be” something else as she role-plays her songs about her “baby”. Here it is “inoperable”, a “runaway child” who’s “out of order”, or “owta fowdah” as she pronounces it. Previously she’s been “a hand grenade”, “a bomb” and “my own disease”.
Ingrid’s lyrics are often dark “I’ll commit murder to keep him warm” she insists though she’s never come close to the shocking opening lines of her 2013 solo song ‘Marianna’. So it may surprise you to learn that this one was loosely inspired by the passing of Trond Bersu’s grandmother.
Her vocals are as striking as ever on this track, and ably supported by arresting drumming and electronics from Bersu and a trademark big synth/percussive ending.
The lengthy (six and a half minute) ‘Egomaniac’ again has hints of ‘Silent Treatment’ about it (along with a flavour of Emeli Sandé’s ‘Next to Me’) until about two minutes in when it switches into the territory of ‘Camp Echo’ tracks such as Samurai Swords’ and ‘My mind is a bad neighbourhood’ and thereafter it flits between the two styles throughout. It’s a song that demands close lyrical attention. Ingrid has come in for some criticism in Norway for a “self-centred” approach since the departure of other band members and I did wonder if she might even have been singing, ironically, about herself here.
Musically, it’s a kaleidoscope of sound, but it probably goes on a wee bit too long.
The title track, ‘Uranium Heart’ couldn’t be more different and introduces a style I’ve never heard from the band previously, an acoustic guitar focused country and western one. I could imagine Kacey Musgraves or Courtney Marie Andrews covering this one. And it’s rather good.
‘Stick with you’ is performed in another unusual style for Highasakite, as a slow, soft ballad with minimal instrumentation and in which Ingrid employs an entirely new vocal; that of a young teenager. Its meaning is not immediately clear but she appears to sing “I think I’ll stick with you/ because you saved me every day on this playground” which suggests it is the recounting of an enduring friendship across the years. I suspect this one will be a slow burner.
The album ends with a short instrumental ‘Outro’ which for some reason puts me in mind of part of M83’s own ‘Outro’ on ‘Hurry up, we’re dreaming’ but without the inspirational vocal. There is no apparent reason for it other than it is an obvious bolt-on to ‘Stick with you’ just as ‘Mexico Part 2’ is to ‘Mexico’. There will be a logical explanation but I haven’t fathomed it yet.
I’ll cut to the chase here. Any Highasakite fan who was expecting an album with the power of either of the first two records will be disappointed. There is no ‘Hiroshima’ or ‘God don’t leave me’ here, let alone an ‘Iran’ or ‘Darth Vader’ and the manic hippie rhythms of ‘Indian Summer’ on the first (domestic) album, ‘All that floats will rain’ seem to be five million miles away.
Those sounds we have come to associate with Highasakite, Kristoffer Lo’s jangly guitar and flugabone, that bastard child of a squashed trombone with valves, with its haunting, moaning sound like a Metrolink tram’s warning horn, have been consigned to history, along with Ingrid’s own zither and steel drums. We are down to the basics now – synths, drums, pads, and larynx.
‘Uranium Heart’ is, instead, probably Ingrid’s most personal band work to date and it has been moulded by the life changes I mentioned earlier, together with the fact that she is a proper adult now, having turned 30. A sense of reflection pervades it and the pace is adjusted accordingly.
It veers towards the personal sentiments of ‘Silent Treatment’ while very occasionally displaying the heavy armoury of ‘Camp Echo’ but crucially it is a standalone statement just as much as her solo album ‘Babylove’ was six years ago. It marks a new beginning for Highasakite in the clearest possible way.
Whether their huge fan base will warm to it remains to be seen. The first two albums were instantly accessible – I fell in love with them in the space of a few seconds when an invisible Ingrid intoned “Lover where do you live” off a darkened stage, instantly silencing 2,000 people four years ago – but I suspect few will open their own heart to ‘Uranium Heart’ that quickly.
Over time though, I fully expect this album to be viewed as an essential component in the pantheon of their work.
Uranium Heart is released on 1st February on Propeller Recordings.
Highasakite will undertake a short UK and Ireland tour, as a four-piece band, prior to an arena tour of Norway. Dates as follows:
28 February – Heaven, London
1st March – Band on the Wall, Manchester
2nd March – Whelans, Dublin