A majestic and deliberate masterpiece
In her latest album—and her first venture apart from Heartless Bastards— Sweet Unknown, Erika Wennerstrom confronts big and personal questions: how to be alone, what it means to change, how to find greater self-awareness. To answer her questions, Wennerstrom turns to her talent as a musician and songwriter, as well as confronting the grandness of the universe in comparison to herself and in doing so, crafts a bold and dreamy dream album that tries to provide her answers.
The guitar-heavy retrospective “Twisted Highway” begins the album. Its pulsating drum beat and wall of guitars are almost overwhelming. Wennerstrom’s rich and slightly rough vocals cut through, refusing to let the instruments overpower her. She begins by looking backward: “It’s been a long and twisted highway.” Then looking forward to “accept that things are changing.” This song summarizes the entire album by looking back and then forward, looking at how the past has affected the present and how the present can prepare you for the future.
Wennerstrom looks to the beauty of the universe for her answers. She goes “wandering around Mother Nature On the back of Father Time” in “Time.” She wants to “feel as light as the summer breeze” in “Gravity.” The celestial quality of the entire album is like she is going even farther to find her answers and it certainly feels like Wennerstrom has created a work of art worthy of addressing the subject.
“Gravity” sounds like the musicians are playing through molasses and Wennerstrom sings at a restrained pace giving the feeling they are without gravity. There is a restlessness in the song as if she wants to speed up, but the lack of gravity holds her back.
Wennerstrom accomplishes a full and heavy, but not burdensome sound throughout the album. Guitars feature prominently on each track, and Wennerstrom herself plays guitar on each track along with at least one other guitarist, and sometimes as many as three others. She is joined by percussion and bass (which is played by Jesse Ebaugh from Heartless Bastards), but rarely uses other instruments.
All of her songs have a strong sense of forward momentum which matches the lyrical content. “Been so long out on the open road I barely touched the ground” she sings on “Extraordinary Love.” Wennerstrom is someone that hasn’t stopped moving and doing in a long time, but she finally is ready to rest. Wennerstrom sings as if this is the first moment she has had to reflect for a long time. “I didn’t understand what it was that I did” she sings on “Staring Out the Window.” While looking back, she looks then to the future. There is no stopping for Wennerstrom.
She reflects the forward momentum in the pacing. At nearly an hour, the album is quite long but never drags. Like her life, the album soars by and is over before you know it. The constant guitars, the heavily beating drums all serve to feel like the album is pushing you forward. That being said, the album is not rushed. “Good to Be Alone” is just over 10 minutes long, and the shortest song on the album is nearly five minutes. It gives you enough time for the sound to envelop you, to really hear the tone of the guitars and listen to the bass, but before you know it, the song fades away. That’s what they do: fade away, no abrupt endings. Wennerstrom has crafted every little detail like that to create one cohesive work of art and it is beautiful.
Wennerstrom’s celestial voice and masterful lyric writing are the highlights of the album. The thematic cohesion suggests a great deal of talent and passion that she has put into this album. As it flows along, the listener can get lost in it, able to enjoy her music for the beauty of her language or just the ephemeral feeling she creates. When it ends, you can’t help but reflect on the majesty of what you just heard and look forward to being able to hear it again.