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Darkthrone - A Blaze in the Northern Sky Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a tense, beautiful, lo-fi landmark from the second wave of black metal.
In the fall of 1971, a child is born in a remote village in Norway. He will one day rechristen himself Fenriz, after the Earth-swallowing wolf, Fenrir, who appears in Norse mythology and the Satanic Bible. But for now, he is Gylve Nagell, being raised by his grandmother, spending inordinate amounts of time alone. The pivotal moments of his childhood occur while listening to records, music introduced to him by an eccentric uncle named Stein. Pink Floyd catches his ear; a few songs by the Doors hold his attention; but it’s the English progressive rock band Uriah Heep that blows his mind. He’s entranced by the heavy organ sound, the cryptic lyrics, and the mysterious men with long hair who appear on the album’s cover. He cherishes the triple-fold LP like an heirloom from…

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k.d. lang - Ingénue Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit k.d. lang’s landmark 1992 album, an emotive and daring reinvention for the former country singer.

k.d. lang’s career started with a round of open-heart surgery. In 1983, the woman born Kathryn Dawn was involved in a 12-hour performance art piece in which she and her peers in Edmonton, Canada, re-enacted the first artificial heart transplant, using pickled carrots and beets for the organ. There are no surviving reports of the audience’s response, but lang recalled that the players came away dazed.

A year later, she took her career in a more conventional direction, albeit marginally. lang was an androgyne from rural Canada who considered herself to be the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, convinced she was born to be a country star. Even in outlaw terms, she was a long shot in conservative Nashville, a city nonetheless seduced by her punky verve and saucy rambunctiousness, a hay-bale alternative to the genre’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism. She was accepted, to a degree—her vegetarianism and PETA allegiance notwithstanding—but lang knew that acceptance was creative death. By the early ’90s, she felt that she had exploited country’s full creative potential. Now was time to develop her own romantic language.

That’s a challenge for any artist—how to create an original expression of love or heartbreak when those emotions have been so comprehensively codified by decades of pop music? lang’s circumstances were very particular. She was irrevocably in love with a married woman, and there was nothing she could do, no cooling-off period she could wait out, to get what she desired. The crush was a lost cause, and despite heavy rumors about her sexuality and a much-remarked upon lesbian contingent in her fanbase, lang was also not yet officially out. It was the early 1990s: Ellen DeGeneres wouldn’t come out for five years, AIDS-related deaths wouldn’t peak for another four, and President George H. W. Bush was renouncing his earlier support for gay marriage in a shameless attempt to maintain power. And yet, lang wanted to convey the specificity of her pain to as broad an audience as possible.

She was also perturbed by how pop was starting to crowd out the singing parts with the rhythm parts. Seeking a vehicle worthy of her voice, lang decided to hark back to the age of Peggy Lee, Julie London, and Rosemary Clooney, the adult contemporary sound of her parents’ generation. The gulf between her artistic whims and mainstream potential could hardly have seemed wider. But lang, who had sewn plastic farm animals to her gingham skirt in her earliest, kitschiest phase as a country star, was skilled at subverting what seemed anachronistic, even if the growing queercore scenes in Olympia and London wrote her off as a mopey blight on their cause. That is the beauty of 1992’s Ingénue, which looks however you want it to look depending on the light—radical queer ur-text or MOR reverie—and lets lang shapeshift accordingly. It was her first all-original album for a reason, allowing her to create modes of tragedy, defeat, and roleplay as she tried to distill the truest essence of her own heartbreak, a state that makes subjugated clichés of us all.

Ingénue is irresistibly seductive, so much so that it drives home just how unavailable lang’s crush was: How could she resist this? lang described the sound of Ingénue as “post-nuclear cabaret” and “nouveau easy listening”: Opener “Save Me” soothes the room like a bath filling up, making the light swim and the temperature rise. From there, lang and stalwart collaborator Ben Mink conjure a sense of intimacy so acute it feels like a confrontation. Their obsessive “sonic cleanliness” heightens the atmosphere to a peak of sensitivity: The tapering bass of “Wash Me Clean,” a song that is otherwise pure, sustained glow, might as well be a finger running down the inside of your wrist. Long before the term ASMR was coined, lang knew how to simulate the sensations of heartbreak: the obsessively lovelorn can trigger the memory (or fantasy) of connection until it’s wrung dry, the spark drained.

But lang also threw in showpieces that showed exactly how dizzying heartbreak can be. Sometimes she vaulted between the two impulses in one song: “Season of Hollow Soul” starts with tense bass, brushed rattles, and clipped hi-hats, lang singing about her pain with the coyness of a detective surveying a crime scene but knowing better than to leave any trace. Then a skirt-ruffling, timpani-bashing chorus rushes in, a manic celebration of love’s capriciousness—“Fate must have a reason!” lang booms—familiar to anyone who has ever grasped for rationale in the pit of despair. lang upped the drama with nods to klezmer music and other European traditions, as well as the work of Kurt Weill and George Gershwin. The insistent dulcimer strings that herald “Still Thrives This Love” and the accordion that plumps the chorus of “So It Shall Be” set Ingénue further out of time, and heighten its underrated playfulness.

Obviously, nowhere is this clearer than on “Miss Chatelaine,” which earned its high camp credentials even before the lang accompanied it with a video where she wore the high-bouffanted, ballgown-clad drag of femininity, the lesbian Liberace. Here, lang is perplexed at how unrequited love has reduced her to this quivering parody, but also evidently delighted by it. You could read a little internalized misogyny into this—the song was named for a Canadian home-keeping magazine—but that would be boring, and miss the point. She takes the mickey out of herself: “Every time your eyes meet mine/Clouds of qualm burst into sunshine!” is not a lyric that found a second life on a Valentine’s Day card. And “Miss Chatelaine” is a towering millefeuille of accordion, frisky percussion and strings, a succession of audible exclamation points—a song with so many ornate moving parts that it’s easier to imagine its blueprint as a cuckoo clock than a black and white musical staff.

Ingénue—an album named for the roles ascribed to young women, and one that early screen stars wilfully exploited for professional reward—often finds lang questioning who she has become in the wilds of heartbreak. “The Mind of Love” comes from a similarly comic school to “Miss Chatelaine,” a pillowy torch song where she considers her plight with tender impatience. “Talking to myself/Causing great concern for my health,” she declares, with operatic boldness, only to circle in on the joke and ask, “Where is your head, Kathryn?” in an all-time great example of a star singing their own name. But lang also plays it dejected, a mode that can seem to weigh heavy given her evident spryness.

“Tears of Love’s Recall” is, at least technically, the album’s least interesting song—lang’s usual pin-drop vocal delivery is flattened to a series of unengaging sustained notes, and its cinematic air feels rote compared to the creativity elsewhere. And the lyrics are oblique, even tortured, like bad Shakespeare: “Love, thing of might and dread, stays the savior and poison to all of heart and head,” she sings over a pattering dirge. But what feels like emotion held at arm’s length spoke specifically to the elusive experience of queerness at the time. Reflecting on Ingénue for its 25th anniversary, lang remarked that its sometimes obtuse nature felt like a form of protection: “It was our own prison that we were trying to break out of, but it was also our comfort zone.”

On Ingénue, you hear lang brushing against the limits of internal experience. It’s an album about purgatory, a place where you work out who you are. But then there’s the lonely, self-flagellating hermitage of it. There is the private fantasy of a self, a side that lang makes genuinely sexy: “I can exist being caught by your kiss,” she belts on “So It Shall Be,” a moment of subjugation that soon melts away. “Outside Myself,” Ingénue’s most beautifully written song, explicitly evokes that dislocation: “I’ve been outside myself for so long,” she heaves, answering the earlier question from “The Mind of Love. It’s a great, rueful sigh of realization that obsession is as much self-neglect as self-indulgence.

Ingénue’s final track, “Constant Craving,” is lang’s conclusion to all this, a brilliant song about how yearning runs deep within us all, yet one that feels tacked on, in sound and in spirit. It’s brisker than everything that came before it, as if her label had asked lang to come up with a potential hit, although its plaintive accordion and melodramatic vocal tumbles probably weren’t going to shake Kriss Kross and Sir Mix-a-Lot from the top of the Billboard charts. And lang’s sanguine takeaway was another depersonalized construction—“Constant craving has always been.” She had sewed up the wound.

That it was this song that became a hit (No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100; later peaking at No. 15 in the UK) probably protected her. She released Ingénue in March 1992. Three months later, k.d. lang came out in an interview to The Advocate magazine, and her heartbreak had to bear the weight of a massive socio-cultural shift. Suddenly, Madonna was likening her to Elvis and seeing the potential in letting rumors about a dalliance spread; Cindy Crawford was sensually shaving her face on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, the best magazine cover of all time. lang enjoyed the performance of stardom for a little while before retreating again. She knew it wasn’t her.

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