BUT BY god, Danish singer-songwriter Hjalte Ross is bloody good. There. That’s an opening premise we can start from.
Hjalte hails from Jutland region of Denmark, and took his first musical steps in the Ålborg psych outfit Eli, before branching out on his own for 2018’s solo debut set, the delicate (and scarce) Embody.
He released his second album, Waves Of Haste, at the end of last week and: well, it deserves the attention of any fan of the gently folksy, the lovelorn and the indiepop. Really does.
For the composition of Waves Of Haste, Hjalte took himself off to a lighthouse on Norway’s Lofoten Islands: enthralling, craggy beauty out above the Arctic Circle, therein to commune with the music that needed to be made; a musical hermitage, to better to see clear and create.
This particular lighthouse stands on a chunk of rock no bigger than a football field and is only accessible by boat; wrapped in blankets, under a dazzling display of the Northern Lights, Hjalte used the eternally breaking waves that surrounded him as a metaphor for the journeys we take through life, and they became the album’s theme: how the wavelengths of our life come in different heights and lengths, how we find waves inside the waves. Wow.
But it’s also an album, by contrast, of Hjalte’s own journeying, which took him from that elemental fastness to the Big Apple.
“Travelling and staying in new places sets the creative parts in motion, it gives a perspective to things,” he says.
“I wanted to go to New York to experience the greatest city on the planet. I wanted to embrace the city music I could hear in these new songs.”
The new album was made in Hjalte’s hometown of Sebbersund in consort with the legendary producer John Wood; and if working with John Martyn, Cat Stevens, Nico and Nick Drake doesn’t accord you legendary status, I don’t know what possibly can. Hear the quality.
“I have become a better songwriter, a better singer, and a better guitar player,” says Hjalte.
“I’ve kept the same intention as last time, though; focusing fully on the music.”
We’ve embedded the video for the single, “Adrenaline”, below. It’s a good, nay, very fine place to start. Written in the Noo Yoik district of Chelsea, it has sad, slow brass grace, aching with 60s’ soul at the point where it was taking its first steps out from its parent, R’n’B. Funereal, in the best sense of the word, it hits so damn hard in the feels, that stately 6/8 ache over which Hjalte breathes and whispers of a lost one, heart asunder: “Us, lust and love / It is a lost course / A dumb thought,” – and the upswell of all that instrumentation, well, happysad, laugh or cry, it’s a pretty much perfectly crafted tune.
Titillated enough? Well, you won’t be at all short-changed by further exploration. Spooling back a track, “Accidents” is the actual beginning of the album, opening in organ tones, wintry piano and string-squeak intimate folk guitar, all in perfect balance to Hjalte’s sparse, hushed lyrics, with that killer payoff, “I have known that this would end, have you not? My little one.” The middle eight sees strings begin to swell in a glow of luscious sound, that dronesome organ tone holding steady.
“Off My Mind” is a delicious and autumnal confection built of strings, pauses and the gentlest piano caresses. It speaks of a gently poppier Bryter Later, and has classic Island/Elektra singer-songwriter genius shot through it like a vein in marble. Smooth-as sax serenades as Hjalte confesses “I know I still feel the same / About you / And I do not think it will change.”
“How Am I Supposed To Feel” has touchstones of Lambchop in the way there’s so much instrumentation, brass and slide busy creating a deep and lush soundscape, paced just so, while Hjalte whispers of waiting for summer skies. There’s a certain Stuart Murdoch quality to his cadence and intimate confessional, laid over this slow burn of heartfelt melodic drama; there’s even a little shoegazey guitar resonating in there as the song climaxes.
“Thinking Of You” positively shouts of the big city; it’s big, literally brassy, all belting indiepop dancefloor drumming and riff twang. Pianist Astrid Matthesen brings some lovely girl/boy harmonising.
A cute little piano and electronica fragment sits in the interstices before the impressionistic glimmer of the title track; it’s all breath, piano and folky acoustic guitar in collusion with string-section touches; and, more useful descriptors failing, bloody gorgeous. It has that guitar warmth of Five Leaves Left and Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely World. Flourishes of brass and other beautifully arranged glows bring out the very best of an excellent song. “Holidays” is a darker, looser folk thing, with a real riverine flow. None of this quite captures the sonic beauty of what’s on offer here, the complexity, the sudden bursts, the swashbuckling moments and lamenting violin.
“Passes By” begins to usher us, not without regret toward the end, in brass and organ and an addictive percussive pitter-patter; we set sail from Hjalte’s world (for now), in “The Truth”, just his evocative murmur, piano and organ warmth, by the end his voice so gentle as he declaims: “Can our hearts not tell the truth? / The truth.”
Let’s drop any pretence of arch music criticism here. This album, wholly unexpectedly, reached its hand inside my chest and didn’t stop squeezing. Imagine Nick Drake moving to a broader musical palette and digesting Patrick Watson’s back catalogue on his way – and you’re close. It’s affecting, nuanced, lovelorn, pretty as you like, and if any of these references mean anything to you, you should own it forthwith. That’s it, really. Loved it.
Hjalte Ross’s Waves of Haste is out now on all digital service providers via Wouldn’t Waste Records, with a vinyl pressing due to be released this Friday, December 4th, on trad black and marine blue vinyl; you can pre-order direct from Hjalte at his website, here, or from Wouldn’t Waste, here.