The most attractive thing about Ólöf Arnalds’s music is the sense of mystery. Beginning with her beguiling 2007 debut Við og Við, Arnalds spun songs that felt like recitations from some yellowing old elvish spell book, her soprano curling like enchanted vines and gentle guitar spinning out notes like spiderwebs reflecting sunlight. That she sang in Icelandic — with its strange vowel runs and twisting cadence — only made her songs feel more otherworldly. So it’s no small risk for her to write and sing the entirety of Sudden Elevation in English; like a sitcom actor suddenly deciding to go Method, peeling away Arnalds’s gauzy façade leaves the raw essence of her music exposed.
The good news is that the songs can bear the scrutiny. Sudden Elevation contains all the tender beauty of Arnalds’s previous efforts — the wandering-bard guitar playing, the vocal melodies that bob like butterflies in a spring breeze. And though her lyrics are in English, that doesn’t mean they’re any more easily parsed. The verses in the gently waltzing “Return Again,” for instance, are tangled as old riddles. Though the decision to forsake her native tongue could be read as a bid for more mainstream acceptance, thankfully, Arnalds has resisted any temptation to further burnish her sound. There are no horn charts, no swooping orchestras, nothing much beyond Arnalds’s guitar and voice. All of this only contributes to Sudden Elevation‘s dreamlike feel: You can understand the words and make sense of the general narrative, but the overall meaning remains as alluringly ambiguous as ever.