Zurich-born singer/songwriter Sophie Hunger has been described elsewhere as “Laura Marling, Beth Orton and Björk in one folk-rocking package” and, while this is actually a neat summation of Hunger’s work, it tells only part of the story (‘Lovesong to everyone’, for instance, has all the moody trip-hop introspection of a Portishead track).
The amount of female talent out there nowadays is overwhelming, but Hunger’s capacity for performing in multiple languages while still sounding stunning sets her apart from the candid crooners collective. Hunger’s Swiss upbringing has provided her with an as-yet-unparalleled ability to express herself not only in English, but in Swiss-German and French as well.
Émilie Jeanne-Sophie Welti Hunger was born in the year of her new album, Sophie Hunger, in Bern, and spent much of her childhood in London and Bonn. First ‘discovered’ at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, Hunger’s dark and sombre music bewitched audiences, such was its intimacy and flourishes of unexpected incandescence.
The Swiss singer’s second LP is sultry, claustrophobic, beguiling, apprehensive and whimsical all at once, with Hunger fleeting from the horns of the title track to the wispy tenderness of torch song ‘Headlights’, and on to the 91-second epic ‘Broken English’. Even though ‘1983’is in German, the stamping beat and catchy horns stilll enable it to become etched in your mind. The repeated, measured descending piano notes are also strongly reminiscent of Ray Charles’ ‘Hit The Road Jack.’
‘Headlights’, above all, ensnares an element of longing long correlated with early jazz outings, being restrained enough musically to the extent where only Hunger’s vocals rise to the surface. Unfortunately, it was this same potentially compelling approach that was a shortcoming on ‘Monday’s Ghost’ (Hunger’s debut LP).
There are perhaps only two tracks here that fail to hit the lofty prededent set by their fellow brethren, and that’s even at a stretch. The French ‘Le vent Nous Portera’ (meaning ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’), originally recorded by French rockers Noir Désir, feels inert and unblinking, deriving solace from the sole brass instrument. Its one redeeming feature, however, are the Swiss chanteuse’s timeless vocals.
Hunger’s voice is soulful, mournful, yet defiant – like a more forceful Beth Hirsch. Vocally, ‘Sophie Hunger Blues’ is marvellously spontaneous, coming across as an impromptu one-take-only recording.
But one of the most fitting examples of why ‘Sophie Hunger’ is lauded and loved may be ‘Your Personal Religion’, which exhibits several of Hunger’s fortes, not least the uncompromising fire in her vocals à la PJ Harvey. There’s something very anthemic about its refrain of “It’s never going to die”, added to the coasting, hazy electric guitar spewing out sudden, jolting riffs.
The laidback, sunny afternoon-esque twinges of regret on ‘Birth-day’ are suddenly enlivened beautifully by a a rich interlude of homely harmonica, with Hunger’s pained vocals swooping in, playing a melodic tug-of-war with the harmonica. Then the proceedings shift to the beautiful, hopeful piano melodies on ‘Breaking the Waves’, which mesh fabulously with her pensive vocals and darling horn accompaniment.
‘Sophie Hunger’s’ closer ‘Train People’ boasts a gentle male/female vocal harmony and delicate tinklings of piano.
Set against a backdrop of hushed percussion, drifting piano and generally minimal arrangements, theoretically, albums of this ilk can risk being too circumspect, but the almost elementary execution of each song manages to be very arresting indeed.
All in all, attempting to pigeonhole Hunger’s music is a tough call; employing harps, synths and piano, stripped acoustic guitar, live and programmed drums, ‘1983’ can be appreciated from almost any angle really, depending on your own personal preference. The blend of tones that Hunger uses is suited for easy listening, so go and expand your cultural horizons while enjoying a 44-minute collection of fourteen individually enthralling songs rooted within a self-contained narrative.