Siv Jakobsen (Norway) – Gardening (album)
Siv Jakobsen really is a gardener. Not so much in the Monty Don or Carol Klein tradition but she has a little patio garden in her Oslo home and spent a lot of the pandemic lockdowns there, when she wasn’t walking alone in the nearby forest that is.
Imagery can shape the tone of an album. The promotional shots for this album don’t. They have her in an unflattering orange boiler suit, with messy, unkempt hair, which I guess is supposed to present her as someone close to the earth but actually makes her look like that character in The Fast Show in the 1990s whose catchphrase was “this week I have been mainly eating compost”, or words to that effect.
Another photo has her reprising Samara Morgan from ‘The Ring’, seemingly out of her well and let loose in a greenhouse. I can’t imagine Siv posing on TikTok like that; not that she would anyway!
I’ve reviewed Siv many times over the years and I’ve never been able to divorce myself from the overwhelming sensation of angst that pervades her and her songs; something she acknowledges.
She typically portrays an image we’ve come to expect of Siv and one that she excels at. If Sarah Klang has cornered the market as Sweden’s sad girl then Norwegian Siv is addicted to worry. (You thought I was going to say a ‘mad’ girl didn’t you?) She certainly isn’t!
But this album is more about restrained anger than angst.
The story behind it is that returning to her home city, her mind and body were overcome by memories – both physical and emotional – that pulled her back into a time she had thought was long since buried.
Memories of a “destructive and difficult relationship” rose up from her past like a giant weed that was begging for a dose of paraquat.
But instead of poisoning it, her mind processed the unwelcome presence, words spilling out with a vengeance.
So the album title is a euphemism for emotional gardening, in which she rakes her mind, pulls the weeds out, but they grow back again and so it goes on.
And that title arose from one of the later tracks, which she describes as a “crazy, jungly sounding” one. It’s certainly a jaunty one, considering the lyrics:
“Sometimes I wonder how you are now/when you feel the fury rising from the underground”.
Oh, the fury of a woman scorned! How it has dominated literature since Shakespeare, through the Brontës and Jane Austen. And that’s something else that Siv Jakobsen does very well; restrained anger. She’s the exact opposite of wearing- her-heart-on-her-sleeve Fiona Apple, but the sentiments can be similar. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes. (I’m assuming it is a he/him throughout this article).
‘Romain’s Place’, suggests one of refuge. Against the background of a gentle ballad she sings of what seems to be assault and battery.
“Through it all there was a lot that kept me from leaving/like your fists around my wrists…”
“I was never your girl, I was stuck between/your mind and your thigh/hiding/from your brain/the angry flame/ the animal: crazy…
Could you feel it, did you know, you kept me so afraid/That from anger fists would form, and I could be the aim”.
The degree of suggestion here is immense. What does “I was stuck between your mind and your thigh” mean? Domination and chastisement? I would never have classed Siv Jakobsen with Ingrid Helene Håvik of Highasakite (she of “he lifted me by the hair/he dragged me down the stairs”) for her ability to portray domestic violence but she clearly has it.
In ‘Bad by design’ she plays around philosophically with the concepts of nature and nurture:
“Are you really that guy/that I keep in my mind/bad by design” (meaning, I assume, that he was born bad) contrasts with “I’m a mother by nature/I live for the nurture/to cushion your brain”.
But nothing is going to change: “But still it resides in the deep of your mind/the shit you survived.” In an album replete with smart lyrics that’s one of the best – there’s no getting away from your brutal past, which will forever determine your own personality. She’s no hanging judge.
Musically, it’s one of the simpler tracks, just acoustic guitar supported mainly by strings, almost too calm and gentle for those lyrics, and it plays out into a soporific instrumental ‘reprise’ which isn’t, really.
‘Most of the time’ is softer in tone and more positive in outlook as she reflects on the better days of the relationship. But there’s always a catch, from the passive to the aggressive. She likes to sleep “’cause I keep dreaming of you not leaving” but then “Your face flickers and fades In and out/ it’s a blunted blade” and “He is all I want to know/we are forever and I am better/…most of the time.”
There’s no rest for the oppressed.
I think Siv might have changed the lyrics here because I reviewed this song as a single last year and came to a different conclusion about its meaning. Or perhaps it’s just the skill in the song writing that you can come to a different inference each time.
Then in ‘Birthday’ another relationship disaster unfolds as she gets drunk and dances on a table while he sits in the corner sulking. The way she sings ‘Happy Birthday’ would turn you to the bottle. If it is possible to sing those words in a diametrically opposite fashion to the way Clare Grogan of Altered Images did then this is it.
The song contains the strongest hook on the album in the chorus but the inevitability expressed in the lyric never changes:
“Somewhere beyond this life/you’re mine and we’re alright/but if I could go there I’d/never, never go there”.
The blue in ‘Blue’ isn’t a mood, it’s the colour the application of his fist turns her. Some of the most impactful lines on the album are here. While he “lies awake, early morning, curbing the rage/swirls it around in his mouth/ ‘til it bursts from its cage”, she “lies awake at night/thinking about that girl/how the light in her eyes died”. That’s brilliant song writing.
‘Tangerine’ is neither a mood nor the colour his GBH leaves her in. The fruit is a metaphor for the distaste she feels for his physical touch.
“Like disease I bleed/when you put your hands around my body”.
She stands naked in the front room, staring back at neighbours, daring them to “come in/and let me free from this hell I’m in.”
A powerful song in which lyrically she paints a perfect picture of someone slowly going mad but it’s in songs like this that I wish Siv could emote that little bit more at times. The vocal is too flat for the strength of the imagery.
Perhaps those neighbours did break down the door and set her free because in ‘Sun, Moon, Stars’ she’s more upbeat, especially in the chorus. “You are the reason that I am alive/you are the sun and the moon and the stars.” Was this just a good day?
She’s joined here for a vocal cameo by Ane Brun, while there’s a gorgeous strings outro.
The title track, ‘Gardening’, is so replete with allegory it should be played over the tannoy at the Chelsea Flower Show. Her attempts to weed him out, again and again, are so obsessive that she alternately prays for flood and drought; anything to get him out of her hair.
He “floats out from the depths, from the deep”, like one of Stephen King’s drain-inhabiting clowns, “just to prove that I’ll never be free from you,” and when she looks over her shoulder, “You’re still over my shoulder.”
It’s all a little eerie but played spryly and in a slightly distracting fashion.
‘Small’ opens the album but perhaps should close it, which is why I’ve left it until now. She refers to herself and her feeling of hopelessness but it’s hard to tell if she’s thrown in the towel (“I’ve closed that door, you win”), or if she has exorcised the demons (“and now I wear the bedspread like a cape”… “and I wrote your name in acid”…” Well, fuck it all/I don’t want to feel this small anymore”).
Are there any clues in the actual final track, ‘The Bay ‘? Not really. It’s all a bit surreal, Twin Peaks like and with a very apposite and super musical arrangement that comes out of nowhere, that will fill your brain if you’re using headphones.
In it she references “Courtney Marie in stereo, singing about you and me” in a dream. I’ll hazard a guess that might be Courtney Marie Andrews, who in ‘Carnival Dream’ sang about “how I’ve been trying each day to forget/how sweet life was when we first met”, and muses “Will I ever let love in again?/I may never let love in again.”
Or of course I could be completely wrong.
Well at least it holds out the prospect of a sequel. Gardening 2.0.
I haven’t said much about the music, which is fundamentally Siv’s acoustic guitar overlaid by a variety of instrumentation, mainly woodwind and strings, and which is just so. Occasionally it’s a little visceral, with a hint of blues and jazz, but more often than not it’s sufficiently neutral that she might be giving evidence in a court case.
That’s because I see her as a poet more than as a musician. I’m sure she could stand up and speak these songs without losing any of the effect.
The entire album is more intimate than anything she’s done to my knowledge, and she clearly set out to bury the baggage once and for all. A lot of people, women in particular, will find comfort in it.
But unlike Apple there’s a sense of resignation rather than revolt. Of antipathy rather than outright anger, of calm in lieu of, rather than before, the storm. While Apple is likely to go after the guilty one with a verbal machete, Siv Jakobsen is more stoical. Shit happens. All we can do is reflect, learn lessons and move on.
‘Gardening’ was released on 20th January.
NMC rating: 8/10
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