Pure-O, the new LP by Berlin-via-Norway musician Kari Jahnsen aka Farao, is a prog-pop exposition on the curious dichotomy between beauty and destructiveness in sex and relationships. Where so much modern pop attempts to tug similar thematic threads only to succumb to naiveté and euphemism, Jahnsen grabs these subjects and dives headlong into a neon pool of synthesizer, zither, drums, and soaring vocals without sacrificing maturity, complexity, or artistry. Musically, she references 90’s R&B, and the untapped goldmine of Soviet disco. But the most important pillar of Pure-O-- its living, breathing, biological quality-- is entirely Farao’s own.
To be sure, all of the electronic ingredients are in the exact right places on Pure-O. Soviet-made synth tones ripple out from an undefined center like a Frank Stella painting, with sharply angled lines of color buzzing with concentric, hand-painted ecstasy. Rolling vocal melodies carry descriptive turns of phrase to gratifying heights, echoing in listeners’ minds long after their ears. In the spaces between all this electricity, there are shimmering microcosms of Alice Coltrane-esque acoustics that provide the album with an unmistakably rich, tactile marrow.
Tellingly, album-opener “Marry Me” leads with the lyric “The heart is the organ of desire” setting the stage for the warm-blooded essence of Pure-O. Lyrics about the possessiveness inherent in marriage unravel over a tenacious yet patient bassline, but by the time the song reaches its rapturous three-minute mark Jahnsen is breathlessly rattling off descriptions of romantic obsession while perhaps hinting at the upcoming listening experience: “overwhelming, undying, overpowering, unconditional, all-encompassing, heart-enriching, mind-expanding”.
Directly following is “Lula Loves You” which takes its name and subject matter from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. It begins with a loop of breathy vocals and drums before breaking into a syncopated, heartfelt bounce that unspools into a concise piece of songcraft devoid of any cynical nodding and winking. This throughline of sincerity and raw emotion continues well into the subsequent tracks “Get Along”, and paired centerpieces “Luster of Eyes” and “Cluster of Delights”. While the first of these tracks marks a moment of relative pastorality, the latter two are wide-eyed pop exemplars subverted by lilted triplet rhythms, and 90s-timbred keyboard hits respectively.
From here Pure-O continues advancing from one ultra-satisfying melody to the next, covering a range of topics adjacent to the record’s core thesis-- the turbulent beauty of love and sexuality-- beneath a stratification of subtle virtuosity and well-chosen aesthetics. The skeletal interlude “Melodiya” demonstrates the Russian-designed Polivoks, a late Cold War-era synthesizer integral to Jahnsen’s
beloved Soviet Disco influence. A trio of heavy-hitting tracks brings Pure-O to an emphatic close starting with the single “The Ghost Ship”, which employs the style of rapped R&B melodies you might hear on an Organized Noize production. “Triumph Over Me”, inspired by the sex-addicted main character of the film Shame, denotes the most blearily psychedelic moment on the album, allowing one more final moment of pause before the uptempo endpoint “Truthsayer”. This final song deals with the reality that as we get older we become truer versions of ourselves by accepting the impermanence of identity.
Perhaps, then, we’re hearing Jahnsen’s early youth in Norway finding perfect equilibrium with her adulthood in Berlin on Pure-O. She says of the time she spent recording, “I was in the process of learning how to conduct myself while not getting sucked in to the whirlpool that is Berlin party culture,” and of her childhood “It wasn’t a place I felt stimulated creatively, and felt quite lonely there growing up, which made me turn to music as a language for a set of emotions I didn’t know how to release otherwise.” It’s precisely this relationship between quiet reflection and overstimulation that makes the album unlike anything of its genre. In an age when non-electronic pop seems like an outlier, Farao constructs a bridge of humanity from the organic to the inorganic, rounding out the hard edges and sharpening the soft ones, thereby transplanting a healthy, beating heart into modern synth-pop.
Though her vocal delivery is sublime, Farao’s opaque, off-kilter instrumentation unsettles the listener, practically begging them to play it again and again to unravel what they’ve just heard.
Although “The Ghost Ship” is fueled by Jahsnen’s feeling that her destiny is out of her control, its well-groomed sound conveys that she’s found a way to harness that confusion into a compelling, new direction.