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Solveig Slettahjell
Poetisk Tale

Review by Tyran Grillo

Listen "Noko anna"

After making a name for herself on the Norwegian jazz circuit, collaborating with such well-knowns as Tord Gustavsen, Nils Økland, and Jon Balke, singer Solveig Slettahjell returns with her most intimate project to date. For Poetisk Tale, she is joined by the Vertavo String Quartet, guitarist Eivind Aarset, percussionist Helge Norbakken, and keyboardist-arranger Kjetil Bjerkestrand, singing Øivind Varkøy's settings of contemporary poetry by Gunvor Hofmo, Jon Fosse, Arnfinn Haram, and Arnold Eidslott. Varkøy's binding agent is his addition of a tenth spiritual gift of “poetic speech” (Poetisk Tale) to the nine listed by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. The combination of these multiple facets yields something that feels like a memory even as it explores fresh connections between spiritual and creative living. Although the CD booklet contains no English translations (curious, given that Paul's ninth spiritual gift is “the interpretation of tongues”), Slettahjell sings from the heart, as if writing each melody spontaneously. That said, these songs are so meticulously constructed, performed, and produced that one is inclined to forgive the veil of obscurity.

Listen "Jeg kjenner ingen ord mer" (excerpt)

Considering its conceptual backbone, it's no wonder the album's most foundational songs regard the relationship between speech and song. Poetry has always toed this very line, and its imbrications are clear in “Ord i en våkenatt” (Words in a wet night), which opens with Slettahjell's gorgeous voice floating on an ocean of strings and fluid stretches of processed guitar. Here the power of melodic truth to move a listener beyond the cage of language is most apparent. The same holds true for “Jeg kjenner ingen ord mer” (I know no words anymore), in which Slettahjell seemingly channels k.d. lang through the robust tenderness of her delivery.

Listen "Gud gjemmer" (excerpt)

Even as we ponder the surface of this music, “Gud gjemmer” (God hides) and “David i hulen” (David in the cave) remind us of what lies beneath. The former is a dramatic song centered around Norbakken's brilliant percussion, while the latter is a concerted exercise in depth. As Slettahjell navigates its terrains with the grace of a dancer in moonlight, she implies a larger cosmic body indescribable by any language of the flesh.

Titles such as “Hymne” and “Nattsalme” (Night psalm) keep us grounded in this project's religious roots, even as they render in finer strokes images of secular concern. This balance is most apparent in “Noko anna” (Something else), a subtle drama of drums and florid chord changes that is equal parts earth and heaven. In this respect, Poetisk Tale effectively conveys the tension between sin and holiness, which throughout hints at a storm that never blows our way, yet continues to press its fingers into the clay of our thinking long after the final track evaporates. - Tyran Grillo


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"Noko anna"
Something else
that is there all the time
Different And yet the same I beg you
Take back our silences
And make them
like shimmering colours
glimmering, shining
in their darkness
like a biblical admonition
into a sacrifice, a salvation, an extended grace
as all grace, useless

Poem: Jon Fosse
English translation: Andreas Fliflet




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