Nerves and Skin by Nathalie SternRelease date: November 17, 2019
Label: Cruel Nature/Inverted Grim-Mill Recordings
As usual I’m arriving late to the new year looking crumpled and confused, my pockets full of random bits of 2019 lost in the festive stampede. This one is like a dark smooth pebble from a brook. Pleasing to hold, glowing inwardly with secrets. A faultless combination of lovely vocal harmonies and meditative drone. Anyway, Nathalie Stern can probably forgive a couple of months delay because Nerves and Skin has taken almost a decade to arrive since her 2010 debut Firetales.
Time, as we often observe but generally fail to grasp, is relative. In her music Stern seems able to make it behave differently, winding together folk traditions and modern practice in a way that cuts free of the hectic present without becoming a dusty excavation. She loops her vocals in layers over drones and minimal synths. The deep, steady electro pulse and sighs that open ‘Here to Stay and Here to Belong’ briefly suggest the first Fever Ray album but as you wander further into the music any outside reference points drift away.
Of Swedish origin but now living in Newcastle Upon Tyne it’s hard not to read ‘Here to Stay and Here to Belong’ as being pointedly about Stern’s status in light of current events. That would be fair enough comment but, in keeping with the rest of the album, it dissolves the specifics of the present into a more universally human meditation. It flows directly into ‘Because Science’ where a short vocal phrase loops and layers, fading away beneath the synths and some very pleasing low key brass. The title reads like a salty online reply to some new-age inanity which seems odd for a tune that’s more like an occult invocation than a scientific justification. It turns out to be a quote from H.P. Lovecraft and while it doesn’t venture too far along the spooky path the idea of unknowable ancient beings lurking below the ice is apt to the general mood.
There’s a wonderfully subtle texture to Stern’s use of electronics on this record. The sounds are quite basic and familiar, not overly processed or subjected to digital wizardry. They’re kind of retro in that respect but she never leans on it, leaving them functional and honest. The ominous pulse and scrape of ‘Luchadora’ toys with their sci-fi possibilities but is followed by ‘Ember Child’ a soft lullaby that fully embraces the space and stillness that blankets this album like new fallen snow. On Nerves and Skin time slows down and opens out. Although virtually beat less there is a deep pulse animating it.
The second half of the album is quieter, even more spare, as we wander deeper into the forest. Three longer tracks are spaced by shorter wordless vocal sighs. ‘Deep Sleep’ is lulling, carried on a low breath. As you soporifically drift an out of tune piano tinkles in the background, it’s like a dream or a haunting. ‘Stig In Lucia’ is a standout example of Stern’s mix of traditional folk and experimental electronics. Its early sweet, soft vocal gives way to a second half like the moaning of arctic winds, the synths turning and shivering. In Sweden St Lucy’s Day is celebrated early in Christmastime, she is said to bring light in her hair to help us through the dark winter. Finally we come to ‘A Life’ the slowest and stillest moment yet, with the most room for silence. Stern’s vocal reverently carried on a deep monk like chant that hypnotically repeats. In some senses its hardly there at all and yet I could happily listen to it go on for several more minutes.
Nerves and Skin was launched last November as part of the Brave Exhibitions Festival where Nathalie was joined by Lindsay Duncanson and Marek Gabrysch from the Noizechoir and gave a truly remarkable performance to a packed audience of which I was fortunate to be part. Something of an outlier on a generally heavy and hairy line up, the hushed awe that greeted her set was a notable stand out of a brilliant weekend. The quiet charms of Nerves and Skin are perhaps not as immediate as they were standing in a room full of the tired and enraptured, there is something communal about it, but if you can give it your full attention it’s a very beautiful and rewarding listen.