When Swedish singer-songwriter Sarah Assbring last made a record, 2009′s gorgeously sad Love Is Not Pop, she referenced electronic dance music while purposefully not making it. This time around, she undercuts melody to make rhythm as her primary muse, yet nearly every synth pulse and machine rhythm on Pale Fire sounds as though it was recorded somewhere between 1986 and 1991.
The key influence here is Larry Heard, the super-influential but under-recognized Chicago musician who pioneered the heady, jazz-influenced vibes of deep house with Mr. Fingers’ “Can You Feel It,” a record the sound of which all over this one. As you might guess from an album that shares its name with Vladimir Namokov’s classic novel of metafiction, this is house music about house music: The lead single, “Walk on By,” leads with a sample of drag icon Dorian Corey from Paris Is Burning, the landmark 1990 ball culture documentary, and ends with Assbring quoting a line from Massive Attack’s similarly contemplative and fierce 1991 single “Unfinished Sympathy” as her chorus repeats to its fade. However, she mostly avoids house’s characteristic four-to-the-floor kick. When it does appear, there’s another wrinkle: “Love in Vain” bubbles with dub reggae syncopation; the culminating instrumental “Dark Night” avoids snare.
But there’s more going on here than intertextuality and subversion. After the cataclysmic breakup chronicled in Love Is Not Pop, Assbring sometimes still licks her wounds. In “To the Beat of a Dying World,” she vows to keep moving, but the track shuffles back and forth between two melancholy chords, suggesting stasis. Mostly, though, she reaches out to embrace a nocturnal kind of love, even if she can’t yet entirely trust it. “Can we make a new past if we run away from the day?” she asks in “Hold Off the Dawn.” Fire makes multiple appearances, symbolizing desire, destruction, and the life force that drives her. In “I Was a Boy,” love is so powerful that it changes her gender. Assbring can pull off a grand statement like that because her delivery remains delicately understated; she thinks like a woman but still sings like a child.