More than a few of us, these days, have been keeping an unusual, deliberate focus on our memories as they form: which ones we'd keep, which ones we’d prefer to destroy, whether any were worth keeping at all, and how they’ll come out decades later. What we might be left with, the research suggests, are “smudged reproductions”: memories recalled through a fogged-over lens, hazier than life. Dark Hearts, Annie’s first album in about a decade, is formed entirely of these smudged reproductions. The Norwegian singer is best known for crafting pop at an arch, ironic remove, but her new album recalls the song that, until now, was her outlier: “Anthonio,” a song conceived as an imagined perfume commercial. Dark Hearts, written with The Sound of Arrows’ Stefan Storm and recorded in a haunted house, is a whole album of this: fever-dream pop.
Opener “In Heaven” sets the mood: a slow-dance ballad heard through a funeral shroud. The low strobing synths and processing on Annie’s voice melt away as the complications disappear from the lyrics, leaving a swooning chorus. It’s ’80s cheese, but it’s cheese with the finest presentation: the ABBA-esque melodies of “Corridors of Time,” the Burt Bacharach sway of “It’s Finally Over,” the last-prom-dance synths throughout, and at the Gouda apex, the entirety of “The Streets Where I Belong.” Over an “Every Breath You Take” guitar chug, Annie recalls an affair, then sweeps away the fourth wall for her dream lover to play guitar hero: “Take it away, Johnny!” Almost every song finds Annie reminiscing about the past, or more precisely, casting her past self in a movie that she can soundtrack. The hometown she recalls isn’t beachy Norwegian Kristiansand but Hollywood at its most seedy-glam. The bad boys she courts are recalled in the softest focus. She recalls hearing songs often—never just a song, but their song.
Decades collapse into an evocative blur. Annie and Storm’s two most cited inspirations are Twin Peaks in 1990 and David Cronenberg’s car-fetish flick Crash in 1996; in between lies the ’92 of “Forever ’92,” a year, Annie’s said, that has stayed with her. Also hanging around are the nuclear fears that preoccupied the 1950s and 1960s, themselves interpreted through the ’80s. The LA-pocalyptic 1988 film Miracle Mile is all over Dark Hearts: it provides the name of one song, the source of another song’s samples, and acts as the spiritual precursor, thanks to its moody soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. There’s also a meta nostalgia at work: taken together, these inspirations sound a lot like the last decade, via the apocalypse-pop of the early 2010s, then via Random Access Memories, Italians Do It Better, and other synthwave soundalikes.
Dark Hearts is best at its most artificial. The moments that aim for “realness” seem less so: the dusty acoustic Americana (Annie-mericana?) outro to “Miracle Mile,” or the title track’s jagged arrangement and stabs at seriousness (“an inquiry into family relations,” she said, stretching just a bit). Far better is “American Cars,” which has no resemblance to the rugged real things but does recall American car commercials, if scored by Badalamenti and Moroder. In a different song “break free and then never look back” might come off badass, but as delivered in Annie’s sotto voce and surrounded by Storm’s sighing backing vocals, it’s a pure mood. “Mermaid Dreams” is half spoken word and all melancholy. “The Untold Story” is so heavy with “Live to Tell” synths that the production almost fully clouds over Annie's voice telling that story—which, perhaps, is the point.
Toward the end comes the apocalyptica that’s almost expected in 2020: a Skeeter Davis riff in “Countdown to the End of the World,” then that end of the world delivered via “The Bomb,” the closest thing on Dark Hearts to a full-on dance song. But both tracks are less dramatic than hazy; the former clarifies that doomsday is really just “an ordinary day,” and the latter, while full of air horns and trance synths and sampled cries about nuclear war, is more sedate groove than banger. It’s the end of the world, and everyone’s only kinda feeling it. The most telling lyric on Dark Hearts is one of the Miracle Mile samples: “Forget everything you heard, and go back to sleep.” Who among us doesn't prefer dreamland lately?
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