Utangátta holds up a mirror to our times, to that extent that one might suspect the presence of an intervening hand. Shelf Nunny recorded the album after a period in which he struggled financially, lost many people close to him, and plodded through “a debilitating loss of desire and motivation.” Sound familiar? Here’s the odd part ~ the tape was released on February 21, and now most of us are going through the exact set of circumstances described by the composer. This creates an unusual loop: the artist perhaps feeling a little less alone, the listener feeling understood and encouraged. The latter feeling is a result of the timbre: consistently soothing, upbeat and positive. Shelf Nunny (Christian Gunning) mentions that hardship produced a sense of perspective: gratitude for the moments we have, paired with a desire to share such optimism with others. Utangátta succeeds because it doesn’t sound like its subject matter; it sounds like an emergence into an emotional spring.
That Icelandic word, by the way, is roughly translated “a hopeless dream, yet your desire for that dream keeps itching at you and makes you keep going.” And that’s what Shelf Nunny does here: he keeps going. He plows toward hope, even when he doesn’t feel it yet. The stops and starts of opener “Song for the Passing” seem like the endings and beginnings of lives, physical and metaphorical; the muted crowd noises honor “the cloud of witnesses.” How did he make it to such an emotional plateau? One might guess that making music had something to do with it: the very act of creativity bringing him out of the morass. In the same way, music with happy beats is likely to have the same effect on those who hear it, and this is indeed happy music, although such happiness has been hard-won and might be more accurately categorized as contentment.
Shelf Nunny has been recording for years; we thought he’d released an album before this one, but it was a steady stream of singles and EPs (with a weird 20-year break from 1992 to 2012, unless that’s a glitch). Our favorite of these is “Windows Down,” from 2016’s Wishful Thinking EP, which comes with an adorable video reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are. The high quality has remained constant throughout the modern stretch, and he’s past overdue for a full-length excursion. As the album delves into what has become the emotion of the world and climbs out dripping yet intact, we’re hoping that it receives a new wave of attention. “Sanctuary” alone, with its contrast of water and breaking glass, is worth the price of admission. The friction between title and timbre suggest that the very concept of safety may be under reevaluation.
The tape ends on “I Forgot to Breathe,” whose title might summarize any of us whenever we have the luxury of looking back on the current crisis. This perspective comes with survival: when we reminisce, we realize that we could have handled things differently. This fills us with the hope that we might be able to do better next time around, although we also hope there is no next time around, even if we’re equipped to handle it. The end of the piece segues beautifully back into the beginning of the opener, suggesting a cycle of seasons. Here’s hoping for brighter days ahead. (Richard Allen)