Gurli Octavia (Denmark) - 'I Could Be Blossoming Instead' (Debut album)
By necessity this must be a long review. It is impossible to do justice to this lady and her first album in a couple of hundred words. It is quite possibly the finest debut compilation I’ve ever heard. It is simply breathtaking from beginning to end.
It takes guts to bare your soul on a music album and even more to do it on stage. To some it comes naturally. Adele and Fiona Apple immediately spring to mind, each in their own idiosyncratic way.
To that little pantheon of stars we must now add Gurli Octavia. While she might feel she hasn’t blossomed in her private life, that’s she’s let herself and others down, she most assuredly does bloomon this record. She isn’t a star in the making. She’s the supernova right here in the room.
‘I Could Be Blossoming Instead’ is self-reflection and analysis throughout, often referencing a private battle with drink and drugs, but she doesn’t do it in a way that makes you think of a psychoanalyst’s report. Instead she sucks you in and drags you along with her through every twist and turn. You become part of her family, whether you want to be, or not. And you learn both to respect and to love her steadfastness and hope for the future.
It is sublime, sophisticated folk-pop with simple but frequently devastating lines in her lyrics and a powerful chorus or outro in many songs. She is a top class lyricist, especially when you consider English isn’t her native tongue. And she has an excellent band backing her.
Here is the album track by track.
It starts like a western as the man with no name rides into town, to a bass line that is so raw it could have been dragged up from the gutter. There’s clever rhyming on show (Sophia/claustrophobia), a smooth flow, a solid mix of instrumentation. Some odd instruments, too. Is that a theremin? The melody is strong without being overwhelming. There is strength and fragility in her at the same time (always a turn on for me) and it sets the tone for the album. It demands a bit of tough love to save her from herself (“a little fuck you attitude to keep me on my toes when I’m in a mood” as she puts it).
A confessional to an R&B tempo in the catchy chorus. “Broke all my promises/not been a good mrs/and I know I’ll do it again and again and again.”
3 'I wasn’t ready'
Just released as a single and reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ – it really is that good – and not just because of the repeated “never gonna give up”. Delivered at the same speed, too. There is lyrical magnificence: “I’m handing over his heart in return for mine”. If Christina Perri wrote that the music press would be slavering all over it.
4 'Slow Life'
It could be a song for our times (“I do want silence/but I also want to dare/ to reach out to life/and not be glued to this chair”) but appears to reference a fall from grace, being sent to Coventry for her wayward behaviour (“let me walk the line/maybe I won’t fall”). The power with which it ascends to a climax marks it out as a song that should be tremendous to experience live.
If it is possible to wring any more raw emotion out of a song than she does with this one I’d like to hear it. Just her, an acoustic guitar, and pure passion.
6 'Keep your ambitions in stock'
Gurli turns to the financial markets to make her point in this one. “The market is high/invest at the bottom/sell it on top/keep your ambitions in stock”. Sound advice and evidently what she thinks she failed to do in her private life. Then, just as the moralising is over, the melody, which is absolutely rammed with discreet instrumentation and voices-off like a minor symphony, takes off into an instrumental which sounds like it’s going to challenge ‘November Rain’ before it ends all too quickly. Simply marvellous.
7 'Tomorrow I’m a Man'
Oh man, this is getting to be too much now. On the seventh track she somehow manages to combine two of my favourite artists, effortlessly. First Anna Calvi, whose repeated desire to “be a man” (which features in at least two of her songs) was for entirely different reasons to Gurli, who just wants to distance herself as far as possible from her tormentor and maybe even turn the tables on him.
“‘Cause Man takes what he needs to be taking/my face, my grace, my will…”'
Then, Fiona Apple. That previous line ends with …”and leave an empty shell of me.” Some readers may recognise it as being very similar to the one on Apple’s ‘Sullen Girl’, the devastating, gut-wrenching tale of her own brutal multiple rape outside her New York apartment door while returning from school, at the age of 12.
It’s entirely possible this song might even be about in-relationship rape; the “taking my… will” hints at that. It is a tremendously powerful piece, whatever the story. And then there’s: “and they say spring is on its way/but it’s getting darker here/each day”. How gloriously apt.
What can I add to that?
8 'Have and hold'
Three observations on this track. Firstly, it seems to make reference to one of the happier times in her recent life, which is a bit of light relief. “oh, to have and to hold/that’s something I used to know”/…when I could have had you for a lifetime/why wouldn’t I be mad?”
Secondly, it’s becoming evident that she finds it hard to finish a song without an extended instrumental. But every single one is just perfect, and exhilarating.
Thirdly, just listen to the vocal on this. The tenderness is almost excruciating. Hers is going to go down as one of the voices of the century, never mind the decade.
9 'Most of all'
A live track recorded in Atlas, a venue in Aarhus, in 2019, it is another confessional against a painfully simple, sombre piano riff, this time to her father. “You’re probably wondering how I’ve been/I wish I had better news/but to be honest/I’m not doing great”.
If you can get through “and I hate myself most of all/and I hurt myself most of all/and I miss your smile most of all” without a giant lump in your throat you must have a heart of stone.
Think of HIghasakite’s cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Heavenly Father’ then times it to the power of ten. Chills.
A little interlude (one minute 20 seconds) from her woes, but not filler as she turns briefly to wider philosophical questions.
The least melodic track to date is also the one which appears to throw some light on her addiction battle, or at least that is what I assume the ‘tripping’ refers to in “tripping/I’m spinning/changes are impending/I ain’t willing/so I’ll quit it/I’ll become unbending…tracing my own path in life/can’t leave it up to fate now/but I’m blessed with a bold heart”.
This track seems to follow on from ‘Spinning’ and the lyrics suggest the other half of her addiction battle was fought with the support of many but that for too long it was an unequal battle.
13 'Lilac Rose'
This track contains the title line, or at least in the past tense: “Had I escaped when I had the chance I might be blossoming instead” (which raises questions about how she sees herself now as the title has it that she ‘could be blossoming instead’, perhaps indicating that she feels a battle may have been won, but not the war).
That said it is the pivotal point of the album, the one in which she resolves to quit her situation (“how can I choose this road again/when I know where it ends”) possibly by writing this album (“the hurt I hide it fuelled a fire inside me/I’m barren now…if I stick to the facts/I’ve put my life at stake for this”).
The song also sees the first overt introduction of a trumpet; an instrument that is going to feature mightily on the last track.
14 'We leave the night young'
There’s a smack of reality in the penultimate song, which confirms that “as we come of age/dreams change” however that may come about (jobs, marriage, babies…whatever). “Our share of nights breaking into morning/watching sunrises/sharing cigarettes” becomes just a memory. Sentimental perhaps, but true.
The verses are sad, but there’s an upbeat chorus, with hope for the future. It could be the song which plays out the final scene of Midnight Cowboy.
The double vinyl album which will come out on 5th February contains four additional tracks. Three are stripped versions of the songs Party, Have and Hold, and Lilac Rose. The fourth is ‘Hush little soul’, which I’ll mention briefly before dealing with the final digital track.
19 'Hush little soul'
Unusually piano-led rather than by her guitar, it’s a sweet little lullaby which offers Gurli’s by now almost breathless voice at its most seductive. It reminds me (again) of Fiona Apple, this time her‘Waltz (better than fine’) at the end of ‘Extraordinary Machine’. A perfect parting shot.
And so to the final track, the magnificent ‘X-Ray’, which was my Single of the Year for 2020.
By now that party in track two is over and there are scores to be settled. One of her main protagonists is the victim. But it’s interesting how she does it. I mentioned Christina Perri earlier. Recently I wrote a short piece on her song ‘Jar of Hearts’ and of how the way she sung it in 2010 contrasts with how she did it last year, on its 10th anniversary. The passing of time has mellowed her and her anger has dissipated in favour of quiet regret and a sense of compassion for what he lost, rather than what she did.
Gurli goes through both sets of emotions on the same song, a lingering lament:
“So/party is over/oh/head on your shoulder”, but then…
“You’ve spent enough time/building your case/suffocating now/need to get away”, followed by more compassion…
“Good for you, showed your heart on an x-ray/looking broken to me, what can I say?” followed by even more rage…
“Good for me I am done with this time waste/promise me you won’t be here the next day/you need time and I ain’t gonna wait.” Followed by the ambivalent coup de grace added in parentheses, almost as an afterthought:
“(Good for me you won’t be here on my birthday/You look broken to me what can I say/I don’t need time, I don’t wanna stay.”)
It could be a script out of EastEnders. And all this is underscored by a brilliantly catchy tune, fabulous interplay between piano, bass and drums, and a glorious trumpet outro to die for.
The only tiny criticism I can possibly make of this album is that about two-thirds of the way through it ever so slightly loses momentum for a while, but that’s it. No other negatives come even remotely to mind.
Along with Lydmor - a quite different artist - Gurli Octavia is the best thing to come out of Denmark since The Bridge, Lego, and sizzling back bacon rashers. And if I can return to the Apple analogy for one last time, this is Gurli’s ‘Tidal’. Just don’t lose the plot at the MTV Awards.
Gurli hopes that 2021 (Covid permitting) will be the year the wider world finally hears her name. It will be, whether Covid likes it or not.
It is very rare that I award 10/10. Is anything perfect? This comes as close to it as it gets.
Thanks to Integrity Records for bringing Gurli to our attention here in the UK (and the U.S). It took them a few years to sign her but it was well worth the effort.
Incidentally, to dispel any rumours, she isn’t Skoda’s sister. She takes after Ms Apple and many others by using her first two names rather than the surname, which in her case is Koefoed. And no, I have no idea how to pronounce it.
Nordic Music Review 10/10
The album is officially released tomorrow, 29th January.