Encountering Molly Nilsson’s back-catalogue for the first time can be a daunting experience. With nine albums in as many years, each bearing analogous black-and-white cover designs, it is hard to know exactly where to start. Indeed, the uniform aesthetic of the album artwork reflects Nilsson’s approach to music; for each project she follows a homogeneous process, writing and recording quickly in her Berlin studio, never straying too far from the sound that has gained her such a substantial cult following online. Given her continued reliance on the same essential building blocks, Nilsson uses thematic song-writing to ensure each record is cohesive and distinct from the next.
Nilsson’s most recent album, 2020, explores the duality of nihilism and hedonism inherent to our ‘late-capitalist’, ‘pre-apocalypse’ world. Nilsson layers big 80s drum machines under warm synth chords and glittering bells, letting it all crash together in the lofi mix. The nostalgia of the instrumentation is complimented by Nilsson’s vocals, distinctly wistful and melancholic. At her best, she captures a very contemporary millennial discontent: ‘Your Shyness’ is a sing-along anthem for the socially anxious, while the opening track ‘Every Night Is New’ captures the hopeless optimism of doomed youth in its refrain, ‘I don’t care if the world is through / Every night is new.’
On the song ‘A Slice of Lemon’, arguably the album’s best piece of writing, the issue of climate change responsibility is maturely explored. Nilsson seems to ask the listener to ‘look into [her] melting eyes’, but through a playful use of homophones this doubles as a directive to ‘look into [her] melting ice’. In the accompanying music video, Nilsson juxtaposes ice in a sparkling beverage with aeroplane-captured footage of the melting polar caps, musing on the effect her own touring lifestyle has on a macro planetary scale. Hearing her sing ‘Why can’t you see me?’ is like hearing a plea from nature itself, the moaning synths and reggae-inspired groove echoing humanity’s absurd albeit unerring march towards self-annihilation.
Unfortunately, not all the tracks here work so successfully. As is evidenced in her extensive discography, Nilsson has clearly developed a practiced formula that she is comfortable with. While this consistency of sound might not deter Nilsson’s avid fans, you have to wonder whether it has begun to hinder her development as a songwriter. Truth be told, Nilsson’s voice isn’t her greatest strength, and when the writing itself is mediocre, such as on ‘Out Of The Blue’ or ‘I’m Your Fan’, it can make for an underwhelming listen. Objectively speaking, ‘Blinded By The Night’ is tedious and in bad taste, closing the album with cheap keyboards and stock drum accompaniments, dragging listlessly on for five minutes like a drunken final dance in an empty dive bar.
Nevertheless, even at its drabbest moments the simplicity of the music feels both deliberate and sincere. Even if the music is corny at times, it is not due to bad songwriting but is instead reflective of Nilsson’s post-ironic embrace of kitsch, a defiant act against music snobs ready to scoff at anything remotely approaching sentimentality. It is no surprise to learn that Molly performs her live sets in a karaoke style, using only a microphone and a pre-recorded backing track. The atmosphere of her music lends itself to this approach – like karaoke, the catharsis of the performance trumps any shortcomings in the music’s actual technicality.
With this consideration in mind, it is hard to deny that Molly Nilsson is astute at making the music she does. Listening to her, it is easy to imagine yourself soaked in nostalgia and alcohol, facing the harshness of a world spinning out of control, yet still avowedly singing along despite the hopelessness of it all.