El Perro del Mar
Keep it close like a memory / notes by Oliver Craske ‘It’s not strange for me to write about these things. It’s always when I am really at the edge of feeling that I need to write.’ El Perro del Mar has always made music with passion and commitment, with an open heart and mind, and fierce independence. Now, with Big Anonymous, she goes places where few choose to venture in public: dialogues with the dead, musings on her own mortality, reflections on the inner darkness that she inherited. It’s gothic, crepuscular, moody – and magnificent. And in the end you might just find it uplifting. She does. El Perro del Mar is the alter ego of Sarah Assbring, the Swedish singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer who has been one of the most consistently intriguing pop artists of the 21st century. Named after a stray dog she once encountered on a Spanish beach, who lifted her spirits at a fragile moment, El Perro del Mar put out her first releases in 2005. Soon she was winning awards, being namechecked by David Bowie and touring internationally with the likes of Lykke Li, José González, Taken by Trees and TV on the Radio. But she was never part of a pack. Big Anonymous is El Perro’s eighth album, and it’s a tough job to sum up the musical path taken by this relentless shape-shifter in the years between then and now. It’s encompassed doo-wop redux, mystic ballads, electronic dance, loner’s laments, ecstatic love songs, film soundtracks, dance scores, global pop, political pop, existential pop and more. Every time you think you’ve put her in a box, this Schrödinger’s Dog eludes you. But it’s fair to say that introspection has been a consistent theme in her music, and that it’s always been balanced out by the resurrecting power of love and hope. This time she has really embraced the existential. Having lost too many family members over the years, Sarah came to realise that she was haunted by grief that wouldn’t go away. She felt guilt at being alive when others weren’t, and was dogged by a sense of her own mortality. And she wanted to move on from these preoccupying thoughts. Why do I come here? Why do I keep returning? It’s not you haunting me It’s my mind disturbing disturbing peace disturbing dreams Part of the problem, she came to see, lay in the secretive relationship we have with death in modern societies, especially in the West. We rarely acknowledge its looming presence, so we can’t even name our fear – hence the album title. ‘Particularly in Sweden, I think we have this really strong and strange relationship to death,’ she says. ‘It’s all very mystifying. You don’t talk about it. You don’t even go close to it when someone’s dying: you don’t see the body, you have the funeral and it’s far away from you, and I think that is a dangerous thing. In cultures where you have wailing mourners it gives you this preparation for your own passing, which is so important.’ In a way Big Anonymous can be seen as revisiting the themes of her second album, From the Valley to the Stars, whose sixteen songs explored love, death and heaven. But back then she took solace in the natural circularity of existence. ‘A last breath is taken, a first one is drawn,’ as she sang on the gorgeous secular hymn ‘Do Not Despair’. She returns to this territory now with fifteen years’ added experience of life – and death. If they are twin albums, Big Anonymous is the darker of the Gemini stars, Castor to its Pollux. The atmosphere is at times suffused with dread, the lyrics exploring communication blocks, crushed surburban dreams, time running out, the death drive. ‘I really wanted to go to the absolute edge of my own thoughts and fears,’ she explains. This is her way: in film she finds herself drawn to horror and true crime. ‘I love to be scared,’ she says. And we’ve seen her taste for the gothic before – in the video for ‘Dreamers Change the World’, she wielded a sword like she was Max von Sydow in The Virgin Spring. Although this album draws on her own experiences, it is not meant to be pure autobiography. The theme applies to all of us, and she takes on different voices and characters in the songs, to potent effect. In one song, she explores the realisation that we can inherit our gloomiest personality traits – what she memorably likens to a ‘Cold Dark Pond’. As she tells the father figure in that song, ‘You got the same dark in you as I,’ and the spine-shivering reply comes back: ‘I put it in you.’ But, like a good therapy session, this is about coming to terms with our darkest places. We dive into the depths precisely in order to resurface and taste the fresh air with renewed relish. Big Anonymous also features delicate melodies, atmospheric timbres and sublime arrangements. The words, as always with El Perro del Mar, are honed to precision. Ultimately there is an upbeat to the downbeat: when we accept that life is finite, we can live better, we can appreciate the too-brief days of wine and roses. The ten tracks originally arose out of a commission from Dramaten, Stockholm’s historic Royal Dramatic Theatre. El Perro del Mar was given a choreographer and two dancers from the Royal Opera and allowed a free hand to stage a performance concert, which was premiered in December 2019. The music was played live, to accompany the dancers. As well as Sarah, the musicians were Jacob Haage (her longtime partner and key musical collaborator) and Petter Granberg, both on synthesizers. The songs emerged from an organic collaboration between the trio and were reshaped by the process itself: watching the dancers in rehearsal fed back into the compositions. From the start she intended to make an album out of the songs too, but the creative process was novel for one of her releases. ‘We did this in the opposite kind of way from how you normally make a record: we wrote the songs for a live situation, we rehearsed and played them live, and then we had them in our bones,’ she says. They chose to team up with the Australian engineer Daniel Rejmer, who had been inspired by seeing the Dramaten show. Rejmer proposed that they record live in a large open space with natural reverb – ‘the way that Flood used to work back in the days,’ explains Sarah. So she rented a former torpedo factory with huge, high-vaulted rooms on the central Stockholm island of Skeppsholmen, which now houses the dance theatre MDT. She used the same musicians and instrumentation, with the addition of a cello, two violins, and the Swedish composer Shida Shahabi guesting on piano on ‘Cold Dark Pond’. The synths and drum machine were routed through guitar amps to create the live sound, and microphones were placed in adjacent rooms. The recording process, like that of the composition, was unusual for her. ‘I’m such a control freak,’ she admits. In the past she has sometimes racked up hundreds of takes of her vocals. Rejmer insisted on live takes. ‘While doing it I had this feeling of losing control and being on thin ice,’ she reflects, ‘and in the end it was exactly what I needed.’ The British electronic producer and composer Vessel (Seb Gainsborough) provided additional production. ‘It’s been a dream of mine to work with him,’ she says. Along the way the pandemic threw some spanners in the works, but the results are worth the wait, and now this remarkable album can stand alone, independent of its origin. And it’s not like she has been idle in the meantime. There was her 2020 album Free Land, the product of a residency at Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art; she has co-written the upcoming album from Swedish artist Zhala; and she has been working lately on the scores for two upcoming films – Four Little Adults by Selma Vilhunen, and Filip Jan Rymsza’s Object Permanence. Indeed, cinema is increasingly important for her. She has taken the new album’s themes in a parallel direction in a short art/horror film that is soundtracked by excerpts from the songs. For this she worked with the stylist and art director Nicole Walker, a longtime collaborator, and the photographer Joseph Kadow. Sarah appears as three characters, seemingly drawn from her fever dreams, who navigate a series of scenes, by turns uncanny, nightmarish or contemplative. A woman stumbles along an empty metro platform, sits bleakly in a bare suburban home, tries to wash blood off her hands, her skin decaying. A black-suited figure, ambiguous, wanders through wintry woodland and a churchyard. Then there is a monstrous figure, who seems to embody all the fearful, untold, deathly nightmares that haunt this suite of songs. But at length the woman gazes on a dark Scottish loch, as the album’s upbeat closer ‘Kiss of Death’ plays, a song of acceptance. El Perro del Mar has learned from her grief and can live with it. I tell myself to not give in To keep it close like a memory.