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Album Of The Week

No Body Knows: Ydegirl’s Startling Debut Album
Amanda Farah , October 14th, 2021 07:44

Pulling strange shapes out of guitars, violins, and clarinets, the eponymous debut by Danish artist Andrea Novel is a study in self-estrangement

If we weren’t already, many of us became familiar with alienation over the last year or so. A byproduct of our isolation, it continues to be common discourse to feel detached from people, from a linear sense of time or even just the broadly familiar.

Ydegirl, the stage name of Copenhagen-based musician and producer Andrea Novel, makes alienation a central theme on her self-titled debut album, with a particular focus on the body. Throughout the album, the body is a point of fixation and distraction, something viewed from the outside, something viewed with remove.

It lines up neatly with the fact that the name Ydegirl is a reference to a 2,000 year old teenage girl whose body was preserved in a peat bog and then excavated in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century. It’s more than a passing coincidence; Novel often embodies a character as Ydegirl – or at least honours the being who was either a willing sacrifice or a victim depending on your interpretation – now a body frozen in time and viewed with detachment in a museum. Novel makes direct reference to the Dutch Yde Girl on ‘Breezing Back and Forth’: “Emotionally in baroque / body stuck in a peat bog”. It serves as a thesis of the baroque elements in her musical style and a seeming existential conflict over having a body at all.

Novel is transparent about the root of these feelings. She has spoken openly about being sexually abused and addresses the fallout of the violence against her in ‘Parody of Crime’, noting the system and the even the family who have not protected her or gotten her justice. But when she sings repeatedly, “You’re dead inside”, it’s not clear if it’s part of an internal struggle related to her emotional recovery or an accusation lobbied against those that have hurt her.

Once the idea of alienation has crept in, you can hear it throughout Ydegirl. Though odd little electronic elements crop up across the album, the most experimental aspects come from the shapes built around acoustic instruments like the violin and clarinet. These more conventional instruments are very effective at creating dissonance and density, even when they’re standing on their own. Many of the arrangements on Ydegirl single out instruments or have them collide into each other rather than work in harmony, the effect being that the individual parts carry more weight is isolation.

Despite all of the instrumentation on the album, it’s tempting to call Ydegirl minimalist because there is enough silence in the songs to almost qualify as an additional instrument. The pauses run throughout the album, feeling more notable than typical rests should simply because of their sheer number. Sometimes it’s a matter of shifting from one movement to another, sometimes it’s just a dramatic effect – the effect being a perpetual feeling of pausing for thought.

These silences also translate as space. Novel allows the songs (and herself) to breathe. Her voice is sometimes breathy, in the very literal sense that you can hear her sharp intakes of breath before she sings the next line. It’s vaguely alarming to listen to someone’s breath emphasised in such a way, but it’s clearly being played for that reaction, as on ‘Parody of Crime’ when she has her inhalations echo on the backing vocal track.

Novel’s voice is very expressive in this way because she can evoke an intensity with little obvious exertion. That breathy, slightly raspy quality of her voice makes her vulnerable in an approachable way. It reveals a humanity that recognises the strange and the terrible but is not lost to it. That intensity creeps into her phrases, not as a shout or wail but with a steady insistence that can be unnerving, especially on repeated lyrics. Her circling observation of “bodies on the beach” on ‘Just a Scene’ does not bring to mind an image of seaside fun. Her insistence on ‘Neversafe’ that someone “stay out my dreams” builds to something more emotive than most of her vocals, but is still eerily calm – not a plea but a protective charm.

It doesn’t feel like it’s projecting to suggest that the occult might resonate with Ydegirl as a project or as a guise, with regard to the original bog girl, or to Novel’s suggested astrological inclinations. ‘Zodiac’ deals with dualities, unapologetically owning any messiness associated with being on the cusp of different things. The song also brings in some of the richest arrangements on the album, blending more baroque patters from the clarinet and strings in addition to backing vocals and programmed drums, which are scarce on Ydegirl.

But the album is interesting for how comfortably it pairs the more complexly arranged songs with the stripped back tracks. The more sparse songs don’t feel incomplete next to gambolling period pieces or an unexpected art pop turn. Just as Novel varies how opaque or detailed she is willing to be with her lyrics, so does she also play with depth and complexity in her arrangements.

‘Valley Song’ is the album’s unexpected art pop turn, but in addition to being the catchy, radio-friendly moment of Ydegirl it is also where Novel asks directly: “What is a body?” This existential question is also wrapped up in a desire to explore someone else’s body, reconciling that estrangement that’s felt elsewhere. For all the references to the body on the album, ‘Valley Song’ stands out for having lyrics with any sort of eroticism to them. Because Novel spends so much of the album regarding the body as something foreign, something she’s detached from, the sensuality, the curiosity in her lyrics here is notable. But just as the catchy art rock arrangement doesn’t feel out of place amongst baroque pop, neither do these interconnected lyrics amongst the other detached observations. Alienation and detachment might be in a far corner of the galaxy from curiosity, but it’s not a different universe. Curiosity, in fact, can offer a way back.