Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: I Break Horses Warnings

The name Warnings naturally suggests something foreboding. Whether reflecting on the signs you missed but should’ve seen, or imagining what could be around the corner, there is danger in it, there is tumultuousness in it. Maria Lindén’s new album as I Break Horses uses the title, and sure enough, plenty of turmoil still lingers in this music. But you don’t get the sound of anxiety. You don’t get the sound of the apocalypse. Instead, Lindén’s been working her way toward these songs and out of the struggles that inform them for more than half a decade. On this Warnings, what you get is the sound of patience.

Warnings is defined by a beauty that takes time to reveal itself, flickers of inspiration Lindén had to search for as things burned down around her. It’s not as if she’s been off painting or writing a novel or something in seclusion and just recently returned to writing I Break Horses songs; the album seemingly really did take all these years to materialize. Lindén has mentioned all kinds of stop-start trials: different studios, collaborations falling through, losing work thanks to a crashed hard drive, starting from scratch, eventually finishing the album at home. Somewhere in the past, she’d used her favorite movies as writing prompts, playing them on mute and composing imagined soundtracks. That process itself waits on revelation, crafting atmospheres and then starting to notice the songs that wanted to emerge from within. Whether functionally or spiritually, Warnings had to be pulled from the ether, given shape.

In the abstract, that’s what I Break Horses albums have often done. They capture this gorgeous, hissing haze, and then these sharp flashes of clarity shooting through the air. When I Break Horses first arrived at the beginning of last decade with 2011’s Hearts, people spoke of them as being shoegaze-esque, this being during that mini-shoegaze-revival moment. But they were never really a part of that, as the heady mix of shoegaze and electronic and dream-pop that dominated 2014’s Chiaroscuro proved. Nor were they really in step with whatever micro electronic pop trends arose at the time. Now, on the other side of that decade, they exist with even less context, which suits them. I Break Horses have always made music that lights up the mysteries inside us with giant, emotive soundscapes, music that you could sink deep into or use as transport to some imagined far away place. All of this just makes Warnings that much more enveloping.

“It’s not a political album,” Lindén said in an early press release during Warnings’ rollout. “Though it relates to the alarmist times we live in. Each song is a subtle warning of something not being quite right.” In some ways, the twilit fog of Warnings feels of our time, strained meditations assembled while trying to ignore the chaos outside. While some big-picture ideas enter, Warnings really feels like an account of romantic strife, the distance between people at the end of things and the tentative glimpses of other lives and new characters.

Speaking of patience, Lindén opens her long-awaited new I Break Horses album with a nine-minute epic called “Turn” that catalogs the collapse of a relationship: resolving to leave in the first verse, telling her soon-to-be-former partner “You’re wasting my time and my future” in the second, before finally deciding, “Turn/ I can’t turn love around/ And I’m losing my mind.” “Turn” rides along the sort of floating, circular synth pattern that feels like you’re tumbling through a blurred highlight reel, remembering important people or passages in your life as they fade into a filmic, impressionistic backdrop; or, rather, you could perceive it as a sort of amusement park of your nightmares, lilting carousel melodies grown corroded as you spin around and around through the same patterns, until you finally manage to leap off the ride.

Similar sentiments are scattered throughout Warnings. Right after “Turn,” in “Silence”: “I put a river/ You put an ocean/ Between you and me/ Can’t go on/ I don’t even know you anymore.” In the album’s closer “Depression Tourist,” Lindén sings, “You dream about making love/ Against the wall/ But there’s never really room to make/ Love at all/ We hold on to your dreams/ Our broken dreams/ To keep our promises/ We’re a broken team.” She delivers it all through a ghostly vocoder, as if to illustrate the way our lives suddenly seem foreign and unrecognizable to us the deeper we’ve entangled ourselves in broken situations. Sometimes the chronology and perspective shift — “I’ll be the death of you” is a different kind of warning, a doomed yet alluring come-on. In one of the final stretch’s many climactic moments, Lindén sings the title of “Baby You Have Travelled For Miles Without Love In Your Eyes” over and over, like a sympathetic hand reaching back to her old self.

All of this is rendered in a world that is psychedelic and bleary at once, Lindén building up layers upon layers of immaculate synth textures that you could perceive equally as lush visions or long drained sighs. Most of Warnings swells and pulses; even its more direct moments don’t really delve into the soaring thrust of “Winter Beats” or the moody dance churn of “Faith.” There are long, contemplative sections of Warnings, there are drifts like “I Live At Night” and suggestive segues as instrumental interstitials throughout. Much of the album seems to occur in transition, still-unfolding personal reckonings and disintegrations. Throughout, Warnings provides a perfect sound for those in-between spaces, nebulous and vibrant but not escapist. While mostly unfailingly beautiful, it has a hint of distortion haunting the edges, like old Technicolor under a few decades’ worth of grime and damage.

In that context, each time something rises up above — a melancholic melody, a synth line that bursts rather than searches — it feels like a small resolution. And those moments of clarity stick with you. “I’ll Be The Death Of You” and “Neon Lights” lean towards the poppier side of I Break Horses’ sound, perhaps more than ever — but they are still otherworldly, infectious yet slightly trippy and washed-out. Each time Lindén brings herself to a peak of intensity, it’s overwhelming, the sound of someone finally surfacing for air. It happens when the beat picks up underneath the final refrain in “Neon Lights,” and it happens again in the intensifying currents at the end of “Baby You Have Travelled For Miles Without Love In Your Eyes.”

Warnings essentially concludes with “Death Engine.” (One more instrumental and “Depression Tourist” form an epilogue.) And in that sense, it brackets the album with “Turn,” two long, emotionally raw monoliths. One is pissed-off, fed-up, a resigned and long-delayed goodbye. The other is all empathy, grappling with a friend’s suicide attempt and the dire places we arrive at as a generation, as a society. There aren’t really neat bows tied around any part of Warnings; it still depicts those things that are over there, waiting for us later. But it traces loneliness across a spectrum, pulling away from those we shouldn’t be near and offering some kind of solace with those we should. The music, perhaps more than the chillier or more cerebral moments on past I Break Horses albums, often offers the same.

Lindén had planned to make her comeback as I Break Horses in a far different world, one in which she wanted to encourage everyone to slow down in a time that was frantic and fragmented and disorienting. Instead, we now all have to live with a certain amount of quiet and stillness. We all have a lot of time to think about, well, time, and how we’ve spent it, and how we’ll spend it later; to think about the people we’ve known and the things that have faded away. It turns out that Warnings might be more appropriate now than ever, not reacting to the noise of the world but giving us a place to sit and sift through what we’ve known. And eventually, along the way, you can start to hear colors seep into new shapes, new futures crystallizing out of murk and the gradual bloom of new beginnings.

Warnings is out 5/8 via Bella Union. Pre-order it here.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s Reunions, which we’ll talk about more soon.
• Hayley Williams’ debut solo album Petals For Armor.
• Blake Mills’ pristinely crafted Mutable Set.
• Kehlani’s as-yet-unheard sophomore outing It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.
• Mark Lanegan’s memoir-inspired purge, Straight Songs Of Sorrow.
• Norah Jones’ latest, Pick Me Up Off The Floor.
• Eve Owen’s very pretty debut Don’t Let The Ink Dry.
• Majetic’s As I Once Transformed Myself For You, So I Must Now Transform Myself For Heaven EP.