Erika Wennerstrom – Sweet Unknown
Partisan Records – 23 March 2018
The fact that the introduction to Erika’s Wennerstrom’s first solo album is reminiscent of The War on Drugs’ ‘Under the Pressure’ from their 2014 Lost in the Dream release, immediately suggests a less playful approach to the songs than Heartless Bastards’ often are. The solid drum beat, amp noise and distorted electric guitars build a heavy and quite muscular sound around Erika’s lyrics that is more Springsteen stadium than the fairly spacious pop garage rock that is signature Bastards. That being said, the arrangement decision becomes clear once Wennerstrom begins singing ‘Twisted Highway’, a song of anxiety and angst, rattling off verses stuffed with lines like ‘I’ve been so blind, I could not see what was right in front of me’ and ‘my fingers bled, from holding on for too long’. It all begins to suggest that this record is in parts a cathartic deluge of emotion since temporarily escaping the confines of the band set up (Heartless Bastards are still very much together). Indeed, when speaking about making Sweet Unknown, the singer admitted the experience was freeing and allowed her ‘to stand on my own two feet’. There’s often a lot to love in these singer striking out records, and this is no exception.
After current single ‘Extraordinary Love’, another robustly built song, but rather more obvious than its predecessor, we swing back towards the slightly lighter arrangement more similar to Heartless Bastards material. Here a strummed acoustic guitar line with more country electric guitars backing it, alongside an easier drum line creates an altogether brighter band sound that chooses to dance behind the singer, while she sings of ‘spending a lot of time alone’ and ‘searching for all the good things in my life’. It’s an effective tune that leads well into the more substantial ‘Time’, a song that oddly brings to mind a sped up John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in parts (the swampy sound beginning the album seems a long way back already). A violin part runs nicely alongside a speedy guitar piece here that gives the impression that as Erika continues singing her own songs, the load lightens and, like the light coming through the window lyric, the singer is enjoying the liberty of a solo set.
It’s also worth noting that Erika is no hurry to rush through these nine songs; the shortest clocks in at just under five minutes, while ‘Good to be Alone’ stays for over ten minutes. That song forms part of a cracking middle third, starting with ‘Be Good to Yourself’ and leading on to the slow and fuzzily ethereal ‘Staring Out the Window’. Here the mood shifts from the previous song to paint a picture of an isolated narrator in a pondering frame of mind (‘For so long, I took to silence / Now I’m looking at the world in a different way’), which merges well as a kind of melancholy medley with ‘Good to be Alone’. Here the reverb is turned up, and the band is left to play it loose around drawn out lyrics, creating an epic soundscape, before Wennerstrom comes in again to announce ‘I’m gonna take a little time / I’m gonna take it easy’. It’s all exciting stuff and welcoming to hear a musician really embracing the freedom on hand in this setting to let loose with confidence and conviction.
After the palette cleansing ‘Like a Bird’, the album ends with ‘Gravity’, a suitably sprawling seven-minute piece of stitched together nuggets of optimism (‘I’m starting to think my good days are ahead of me’) that further suggests a singer that has managed to shed a burden across the playing out of the set. And Sweet Unknown is a great set, a big piece of work that isn’t the easiest to digest in one hit, but it absolutely works and will undoubtedly weave its spell before long.