With my limited travels to the sonic world of Svalbard so far, I know that they make these full and dark pieces of music which deliver wholehearted truths and questions that are well worth being with. In a metaphorical candlelit wooded forest, we bear witness to outpourings that would probably be far easier to turn away from. But Svalbard music demands a sombre almost ritualistic presence and to be seen and heard, no matter how uncomfortable these bleeds of honesty about the more shadowy parts of life may be.
I mean, look at the title: When I Die, Will I Get Better? It seems like a question that surfaces only in the direst of circumstances, where the idea of things improving is a distant and unreachable star, and where wonderings if the same aches would exist beyond the veil makes absolute sense. Again, it’s uncomfortable to consider.
With this, it seems incredibly fitting for the album to begin with “Open Wound”. Initially with a slow-motion drop into a chasm, the ethereal darkness has the song’s protagonist land in a situation of abuse, crafted by tumultuous instrumentation and raw vocals. With rapid pace and rivulets of bass, sharpened guitar cuts to the core.
A softened vocal sharing “Every moment leaden” is akin to the recognition that an angel’s wings have been clipped. The assertions of openness are hard to consume; where a former whole has become fragmented, and the details of mistreatment become more and more blatant. It painfully peaks for me at the bridge, where heart-racing bass and percussion are juxtaposed with floaty, perhaps dissociated, observations of what is being done to the self.
There’s much more I could say on this song and its subject matter, but it leaves me with a mental image of a brutalised body that still has a loving, open heart beating within it. As I shared when the song released as a single, it’s incredibly important that this piece of art is taking such a firm stance, and staring unflinchingly at the experience of abuse and its pain instead of hiding or being ashamed of what was done.
The album’s second track, “Click Bait”, turns Svalbard’s unflinching stance against mistreatment toward music media. I have to say that I take absolute delight in taking in lyrics which brutally refer to ‘desperate click-bait’. As a female editor of a heavy music site that has morals high enough that I won’t/can’t stoop to that kind of approach, I fully support any art that shines light on manipulation tactics that are designed to get a reaction. Where is the value in this? Aren’t we here for the music? To respect and appreciate those that create it?
But to the song. A gloomily dark introduction sees thoughts hang like a fog, before a quickening pace tears “Click Bait” into a more aggressive mood. To me this aggression comes coupled with a sadness, courtesy of guitar that all but pleads for a change to happen. It’s a heavy-hearted sinking when it’s understood that to outwardly react is for the manipulative media outlet to succeed – but returning to “Fuck off, fuck off!” draws an invisible and powerful line of disconnect in the space between them.
After a moment of quiet suspension, “Click Bait” thunderously shares a hope for a more positive future. Heartwarming instrumentation creates a peak of satisfaction; where representation without any kind of agenda are part of the “One day” for Svalbard. Yes.
Stomping and heavy, “Throw Your Heart Away” makes for a blunt arrival, steeped in heartache. Forming greater pressure, the song lyrically paints a surrender to a world of darkness created by this heartache, where an empty heart shudders due to the experience of unrequited love. Relentless drumming fits the description of mental haunting, where “you bang on the crumbling wall of my mind”, but they also feel distant and excluded in being “lost on the outskirts of your life”.
It’s rough to be with, this funeral for love, full of vulnerability toward this other who is unhearing and unseeing of them. What’s even rougher is the perpetuating nature of the experience, which Svalbard use the metaphor of a video game to express. Dying over and over again, and never quite ‘winning’. As with its title, the advice is to just not love. There’s no happy ending.
Sonically, “Throw Your Heart Away” is another soaring song with searing guitar and also temporary moments of quiet. As much as I’m enjoying these majestic and full sounding worlds that are created by Svalbard, there’s a quality of sameness that has them not feel so different from one another. It’s a criticism in the sense of memorability, but I can’t assume what the band were going for in the album’s creation.
As if to reinforce that thought, “Listen to Someone” begins as though it’s a continuation of the song before it. But it’s a lighter and more buoyant space, detailing what seems to be a state of depression. As a midway point thought, I’m wondering if there’s so much breadth of emotion on each topic captured that it’s hard to have it be pinpointed to something specific and therefore have it blatantly stand alone. At times it also feels like there’s also a lack of solid connection/anchoring with the vocals and instrumentation that makes them seem to be operating in parallel instead of with the same intention.
With “Listen to Someone”, there’s floaty ‘every day is the same’ loops, internal savagery toward the self, frustrations about well-meaning advice that comes off as hypocritical. All of these factors combine when one is struggling through a difficult mental health period and when the simplest option – just listening! – isn’t applied.
What resonates immediately is “Silent Restraint”. It manages to succinctly capture a state of internal screaming and disconnect which has a canyon of distance between the struggling self and someone (outside of the struggle) who understands. There’s a post-rock flavour to the track when Liam Phelan’s singing arrives, feeling like a structure that we’ve not had on the album up to this point. The two voices express the the experience in their own way, with Serena Cherry’s raw panic and Phelan’s yearning both reflecting that internal cage.
But any perceptions of solid or predictable structure are forgotten when “Silent Restraint” proceeds as the songs before it; clasping a thread of darkened thought with calloused hands in an attempt to make it through. Exasperated and frustrated, a skyward scream follows “I’m sick of having no control”, and given that a loss of control and lack of power has been mentioned in several ways so far, I start to see it as a central point of the album.
Pummelling and instrumentally bleeding, there’s a defeatedness to “Silent Restraint”‘s pressuresome end, where forcing and faking are the heartbreaking promise of the future ahead. It’s emotionally tough (and moving) in both word and sound.
“It’s just selflessness and depression
Going hand in hand again”
After the previous song’s emotional intensity, it feels like “What Was She Wearing?” offers a blackened pool to collapse into. From its whispered and pensive introduction, there’s a heaviness that holds me down, and despite the almost unaffected singing, there’s a deep deep sadness here that drags everything downward including the pace.
Every enunciated syllable painstakingly asks the questions as to whether the appearance speaks louder than the person themselves, and yet again holds unflinching focus, this time upon the idea that women are judged as either being a ‘prude’ or ‘whore’ and there’s little in between. When I feel like I can’t sit with the agonising slowness for much longer, thankfully the pace and energy builds and lifts to a piercing point of assertion: “Why are we still being judged solely on our clothing?”
Hearing Phelan’s voice included on this topic with questioning fury honestly gave me goosebumps. These are important questions to be asked, whether male or female, and Svalbard present them openly, with the song lifting into celebratory defiance in doing what needs to be done and standing up for what matters.
“The Currency of Beauty” continues the conversation on appearance, where the frustration at being “reduced to an image” builds into a pulse-quickening fire and the drums all but furiously drown everything out. Circular and wild at times, the song eases into calmer moments of focused assertion and lay out what Svalbard want to see happen. “I am not more valuable if I am pretty” lands with drum blasts and serrated guitar, with instrumental room left for it to be swallowed as fact.
With words like gentle waves, Cherry wonders what matters aside from appearance, before metaphorically stomping the earth and striking it with a staff made of fire. This is doubled down upon by Phelan and the “STOP” that’s repeated by both voices is palpable.
Heading into final track “Pearlescent”, I’m honestly exhausted. But within a minute, the warmth and full-circle kind of feelings of the album’s final track sink in. In contrast to incredible darkness and heavy moods we’ve endured to this point, the lightness is very welcome, as is the sense of determination to continue that ribbons through the song. The instrumental lifting, pulling us forcibly back on our feet, is perfect.
Looking back over the span of the album, I see these songs as pained scribblings that occurred in a world of darkness. The fact that they carry a persistent mood that doesn’t have a great deal of variety could be a criticism, but it does mirror the real-world experience of unchanging fogs of depression. Whether the dark reflective pools have been shallow or deep, still or stormy, Svalbard have taken us with them into the experience.
Svalbard's determination to have us focus on these points of pain with them is clear, and each facet combines well to paint their darkened scenes.
The songs of When I Die, Will I Get Better? unfortunately seemed to bleed into each other over the space of the album. This may be exactly what was intended, but it made for a challenging listen. It didn't always feel like the vocals and the instrumentation were a linked pair.