Most readers will be surprised to learn that six years have passed since Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s last solo album. The artist’s film work during this time has been so prolific and publicly recognized that it would be easy to assume that he’s had time to compose something other than scores. Not that Orphée breaks this mold ~ the album is based on the Orpheus myth and includes a nod to Jean Cocteau. The difference is that the artist is no longer constrained to compose around scenes, and is free to make each piece the length he desires. While there are no ten-minute tracks here (as found in earlier works), the album does start with the lovely 6-minute piano piece “Flight from the City”, which the artist admits was inspired by his own move from Copenhagen and its subsequent changes, internal and external.
An air of melancholy presides over the album, no surprise for those familiar with the myth ~ or even with moving. The recitations on “A Song for Europa” recall those on “Thoughts of Alice”, from Last Days’ The Safety of the North, another album about physical and emotional transition. As the strings take control, the listener realizes that Jóhannsson has become a master of quick emotion; it doesn’t take long to go from zero to poignant.
Unlike his recent work (Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Sicario), Orphée is subtle, quiet, nuanced, revealing its heart in cautious intervals, building shade upon shade until the overall color is revealed. The press release refers twice to the “elusive nature of beauty”, and the Orpheus myth provides ample room for such reflection. Beauty is present in the desire to capture beauty, even when it fails: the fatal glance backward that sends the musician’s beloved back to the underworld. “A Pile of Dust” would seem heartbreaking even without the myth (Eurydice does not actually turn into a pile of dust, nor a pillar of salt; this dust represents a more general loss). But the subsequent tune, “A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder”, lifts the spirit like the first glimpse of sun. This contrast is one of the keys to understanding beauty: for the fullest effect, it can’t be all joy or all pain. Doomed romance, dashed dreams and thwarted hope all have their place in this bittersweet pantheon. The artist’s heart is not broken when he turns back to look at Copenhagen; instead, it is torn and mended, torn and mended again, until the scar can no longer be cloaked. As the album’s themes repeat, they change like muted memories, held close to the heart despite the fact that they may no longer be accurate.
The album builds to a choral conclusion, as Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices performs a text by Ovid. The threads pull together even as they fray. “Orphic Hymn” acts as an elegy, arriving at the stage of acceptance, albeit in gut-wrenching fashion. Everything that we have left behind has changed in our absence, and so have we. There is no going back. This realization has the potential to tether us or to free us; the implication is that Jóhannsson began with the first, but ended up with the latter, and is now grateful for every stage of his journey. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 16 September