Annie is an enigma. Since debuting in the late ’90s, she’s only released three albums. To a certain generation of music nerds and journalists, she’s monolithic — a mercurial pop star that presaged how radically our perceptions and listening habits would evolve in the 21st century. To others, she might remain unknown, a musician who has gone through the ringer of label machinations. So she’s a cult figure disappearing and then reappearing from time to time. And on each occasion that she pops back up, she’s someone a little different, someone a little new — even when she’s excavating the past to realize that new self.
For much of her career, Annie’s story has been one of confounding twists and turns, operating on her own wavelength well outside of typical industry norms. She was one of the figures responsible for ferrying pop songs into the indie-blogosphere, a mysterious European chic allowing her to Trojan Horse the nascent strains of poptimism into the beginning of the ’00s. Any significant headway into the American mainstream was derailed by label incompetence and/or lack of imagination when it came to marketing Annie in a pre-digital, pre-everything-goes industry landscape. But for those in the know, a new Annie album is a big deal — the first Annie album in over a decade, even more so.
She’s returning this week with Dark Hearts, a lush and nocturnal synth-pop album that sounds legible in this moment while simultaneously feeling completely unstuck from context. This was, perhaps, by design: Dark Hearts introduces us to a slightly older, slightly more reflective Annie, sifting through memories and origin stories. Since her last album, 2009’s Don’t Stop, Annie has limited herself to a pair of EPs, 2013’s A&R and 2015’s Endless Vacation. She’s been mostly off the radar for the last several years, working with the Swedish producer Stefan Storm — who she met through her longtime collaborator Richard X — to craft her next sound, her next chapter. But along the way, she’s also had a lot of life to process.
Now in her early 40s, Annie moved from Berlin back to her hometown of Bergen after her mother received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Annie herself became a mother during the recording of Dark Hearts and now has two small children. One could only imagine the waves of revelation that hit you when you undertake so many changes at once, when you hit middle age and have so much history to look back through and so many new unknowns to venture forward into. Dark Hearts is at turns alluring, wistful, and searching — in other words, it’s an ideal backdrop against which to tumble through the past.
When Dark Hearts’ first single “American Cars” suddenly appeared, it garnered what is by now a well-worn comparison: that Drive soundtrack sound, referencing a movie that is almost 10 years old and whose musical signifiers have basically become a shorthand for “refracted nostalgia.” The movie’s synthwave-indebted warped-photocopy-of-the-’80s aesthetic has become even more refracted in subsequent years as it’s worked its way into underground releases and pop blockbusters alike. “American Cars” is the main song on Dark Hearts that goes in that direction, but it’s true that much of the album sounds like reflections of reflections. It’s an album where the stylistic intro suggests the ’80s by way of the early ’10s, and in which Annie focuses on personal stories from the ’90s onwards through the ’00s. Initially — before she makes you hear things a whole different way once more — this might give Dark Hearts the dizzying sheen of nostalgia.
You know the deal with these kinds of albums, far enough removed from a particular tried-and-true antecedent that they corral echoes more than they directly call back to tangible reference points. So Dark Hearts is night drives to nowhere down retro-futuristic highways. It is smoke-filled rooms colored by pastel neons. It is prom nights that are always, without fail, far more poetic on the screen than they could ever look or feel in real life. You know a lot of the pieces that make up the synthscapes of Dark Hearts; you know many of the scenes it conjures. But that doesn’t make it any less intoxicating. There’s a reason people return to this well, an endless and suggestive mystery to new wave sonics that isn’t just pure nostalgia but also a mechanism through which to analyze one’s own past and their relationship to it.
Musically, the highlights of Dark Hearts are small miracles. “American Cars” is both one of the album’s darkest and most sensual moments, placing doomed lovers against synth-noir recalibration of old-school automobile tropes (“Before we crash/ Kiss me under the stars/ In American cars”). The sugar rush of “Forever ’92” fondly recalls young love and lust and recklessness and limitlessness. There are several songs where Annie brings the sound of the album up into a hazy place amongst the clouds: “The Countdown To The End Of The World” and “The Untold Story” are gorgeous, transporting dreamscapes at the album’s conclusion. There’s also “The Streets Where I Belong,” in which a gentle strobe pulse underpins Annie’s recollections of a young love affair. At first glance, it’s Annie using a perfectly arranged synth-pop song to do exactly what you’d want it to: reach back to a vibrant-but-hard-to-reach memory of youth and when everything felt new, while weaponizing an aesthetic that immediately triggers our own sense of bygone innocence and lost decades.
In a sense, that means “The Streets Where I Belong” is not just the best song on Dark Hearts, but also the skeleton key for what the album does. As the second track on the album, it’s earlier in the chronology of Dark Hearts‘ story, but also the mission statement for what comes next. Annie, after all, wasn’t just a left-of-center Norwegian pop star that label execs didn’t know how to sell to Americans; she’s also always tweaking pop forms and styles to her own use, combining club culture and radio-friendly earworm melodies and calling cards from all kinds of microgenres and scenes along the way.
Dark Hearts feels familiar on those first listens, but that’s really just a way of pulling you in. Soon, it becomes clear the album isn’t just a pure nostalgia trip, not just a contented stroll back through more romantic times. Across the album there are life-altering relationships and brief dalliances, there are coming-of-age passages — but there’s also death, and the weight of time’s passage, and allusions to losing our grip on time and memory. That’s Annie’s latest trick, the way she modulates a certain strain of pop music on Dark Hearts, taking what could be blindly and comfortably nostalgic and instead tapping into strains of melancholy, yearning, and anxiety from this very moment.
Take, for example, that starting point of “The Streets Where I Belong.” “Annie, Annie, they’re playing our song/ And for a moment I’m transported to where I’m from/ Teenage lovers, when we were young/ All of the parties under the midnight sun,” Annie sings in the beginning. It seems simple enough, an old song whisking a person back to their formative years, to old friends and crushes. But what initially plays like a warm, twilit visit to a cherished memory instead turns mournful. The teenage lover Annie alludes to, the DJ in the beginning of the song, was a real life partner of hers who died young. In the song’s final verse, Annie’s memories turn towards the people that have gone: “The saddest story was the woman next door/ A beauty queen that met her end on a motel floor/ She used to tell me, Annie don’t stay/ Go sing your songs or if not you’ll fade away.” For a long time, Annie did leave, she got out of town and became someone else. But now Dark Hearts finds her back at home, and “The Streets Where I Belong” is not the only song that spends time with ghosts.
This happens again and again over the album. At first, the throb of its title track and one chorus lyric — “The games we play are written by our dark, dark hearts” — sounds like a classically fraught tale of romantic trials. But instead it’s really grappling with cyclical, inherited trauma, a father leaving a family and a daughter growing up to learn he had been abandoned as a child, too: “We can’t escape who we are/ Story repeating/ Circles are meeting/ And now we’re taking it back to the start/ We try to fight it/ But can’t live without it.”
This is the process unfolding across Dark Hearts: going back to the source and turning over one’s life in new lights, to see how those who surround us flicker differently depending on where you’re standing. Annie, at 43 and newly returned home, is a lot farther from some of these scenes than she once was. At times, it seems like she’s settling into a wisdom some friends or family didn’t make it long enough to grasp onto. In “Corridors Of Time,” she sits in the middle of the arc: A young woman dancing alone like a teenage Annie first discovering nightclubs, an elderly couple on the other side representing Annie’s uncle-turned-father-figure, mingling in one scene as the years layer on top of each other.
Annie’s freely admitted that Dark Hearts has a lot of her own life in it, and that makes these tracks work as core emotional moments. But she’s also called it a “soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.” By the end of Dark Hearts, there are songs that feel as if they could still be in Annie’s own voice or could be amping up the drama with stolen movie scenes: For example, the Miracle Mile-quoting “The Bomb” and its successor “The Countdown To End Of The World” could feel relatable to just about anyone in these precarious times, or they could feel like, once more, some kind of borrowed new wave mythology. Dark Hearts goes in a lot of directions — so much so that a rather autobiographical journey might end back in the ’80s, with paranoia of nuclear war looming over the album as it drifts off into the night.
The album’s dance between fact and fiction — and now and then — is severe. Literal scenes give way to inherited dread from faded films; eerie near-future apocalypses haunt the edges of universal experiences like aging and loss. But isn’t that what’s always made Annie special? She takes something we as listeners think might be a little familiar or recognizable, and makes us hear it from her own angle — maybe makes it feel like a vernacular filtered through a different place and perspective.
There are moments on Dark Hearts that all of us have lived, and there are moments that seem born of another world. But in the end it’s an album about growing older and going back to where it all started. At the same time, it’s yet another transformation from Annie, a reinvention compared to when we last saw her and surely only one stop on the way to whatever she becomes next. So Dark Hearts is a homecoming, but one that can only be deciphered by wading through the collisions of time and sounds. It’s a homecoming that only underlines all the past selves you carry with you each time you return.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Matt Berninger’s solo debut Serpentine Prison, which we’ll talk about more soon.
• Black Thought’s Streams Of Thought Vol. 3: Cain And Abel, which we’ll also talk about more soon.
• Tommy Lee’s ANDRO, which (somewhat shockingly) we’ll also talk about more soon.
• Kevin Morby’s hushed-yet-expansive Sundowner.
• Benny The Butcher’s as-yet-unheard Burden Of Proof.
• Holy Motors’ strung-out Americana vision quest, Horse.
• Paddy Hanna’s melancholic and Old World The Hill.
• Helena Deland’s long-awaited debut Someone New.
• beabadoobee’s exercise in ’90s-alt-rock-as-pop-insurgency, Fake It Flowers.
• Open Mike Eagle’s therapeutic rap session Anime, Trauma And Divorce.
• Autechre’s first album in seven years, SIGN.
• Good Sad Happy Bad’s Micachu-And-The-Shapes-rebrand LP Shades.
• HEALTH’s collabs collection DISCO4 :: PART I.
• Osees’ Metamorphosed, which going by Wikipedia is their twenty-third album in 20 years, but who the fuck even knows. It is, at least, their second album in the matter of a month.
• Gord Downie’s posthumous Away Is Mine.
• Dorian Electra’s sophomore outing My Agenda
• The Damned’s The Rockfield Files EP.
• Tomberlin’s gorgeous Projections EP.
• Tom Petty’s posthumous expansion of the legendary Wildflowers, Wildflowers & All The Rest.
• Juicy J’s as-yet-unheard The Hustle Continues