An inevitability within trends and scenes in music (or anything, to be honest) is that not everyone gets remembered. Typically, it’s the first to do it and the ones that leave the greatest emotional response, both positive and negative, though the willful ignorance of such a basic fact from artists themselves is almost unbelievably common. Within the current ‘90s revival and surge of non-male lo-fi indie-rock acts, distinguishing factors are very few and far between, and where artists like Soccer Mommy have built a following for being among the key contributors to the sound, the acts simply aping that formula and enjoying their quick bursts of current success without much longevity seem to be a noticeably prolific phenomenon. And thus, with the emergence of a singer like Ellis (the musical sobriquet of Canadian singer-songwriter Linnea Siggelkow) who found her feet through an EP that was decently received at the time but seems to have fallen into the pits of indie-rock obscurity, it’s hard not to feel much more than generally nonplussed. Acts like Snail Mail and Beach Bunny have had considerably more buzz around them and have proven to be just as ephemeral as all the rest, and for an artist that – on face value, at least – could be slotted into the same camp with minimal effort and is looking to have some kind of breakthrough there, it’s nigh-on impossible to muster up much enthusiasm.
That is, until actually listening to Born Again, and it reveals itself as an album with the thoughtfulness and quiet poignancy to do exponentially more than anticipated. There’s so much more to Siggelkow as an artist than an incredible majority of her contemporaries, be that in composition, writing or emotion that expands well beyond the usual boundaries of indie-rock or indie-folk, and into something far, far more captivating. That’s nothing to scoff at either given the near-vertical wall that the odds of succeeding in both genres automatically stack up, but this is unquestionably a triumph, especially in the right frame of mind when Siggelkow’s ruminations just come crashing down.
That’s an equally impressive feature that Born Again boasts, in its ability to sideline some of over-waifish and insincerely dejected tendencies of indie-rock and tap into emotionality that feels real and distinct. Having personal stakes is one thing – and with Born Again’s simmering narrative of Siggelkow questioning her faith and the decisions made because of that, that’s definitely there – but being able to do something with that and make it connect is another entirely, and that’s where this album accomplishes the most. A track like Embarrassing sets up a lot of the pressure that Siggelkow’s shifting stances and decisons pile onto her, as she’s gaslit and mentally drained by notions of a crumbling identity that, regardless of how unhealthy it might have been as shown on Happy, stood as such an integral part of her life. And when that placelessness is conveyed with such a genuine ache on a track like Into The Trees, the image of a woman beating herself down and perceiving the loss of such a formative part of her life really does hit hard when imbued with such devastating honesty and inner turmoil. What’s even more powerful is that an easy answer is never reached; the goal of striving to reinvent herself and forge a new identity on Saturn Return is laid down, but when that’s followed by Zhuangzi’s Dream, drawing from the titular Chinese philosopher’s thoughts of whether his dream about being a butterfly could’ve have instead meant a butterfly dreamed it was human, there’s never a definite answer that’s landed on. Siggelkow’s uncertainty is left as a dangling thread, and while the image of a butterfly does trend towards freedom and hope for the future, it feels hollow, as if that hope really isn’t a certainty after all.
That in itself would be enough to send Born Again rocketing past its competitors, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the execution feels so much more fully-formed and palatable, moving a considerable distance away from deliberately cheap guitar twangs and into something with a more shoegaze-style blur to it. The overall earthiness hasn’t been done away with either, but repurposing it into the blissful echoes of strings and gentle guitars of Shame or the perfectly-timed buildup to the reverberating wall of sound on Into The Trees can pull so much more worth out of these ideas. There’s still a palpable intimacy, but it never feels threadbare thanks to such an adept command of restraint and timing that allows the wider mix and crescendos to natural swell and emerge borderline seamlessly. Coupled with a production style that enhances the coldness and loneliness that Siggelkow sees around her (with a particular fondness for vocal reverb that admittedly can go slightly too far on Shame), Born Again has the layering and softened opulence that’s almost reminiscent of late-‘60s pop song, but keeps the grounded ruggedness to ensure that Siggelkow is never out of focus. That’s especially handy when, as a singer, she deliberately doesn’t have a great deal of presence, piling on to feelings of emptiness and inner turmoil that continues to thread every little detail of this album together.
It’s touches like that that gives Born Again that impression of going so far above and beyond what it needed to. It would’ve been easy enough to ride the wave and easily capitalise on fashionable indie sounds, but there’s an honesty and creativity to Siggelkow’s work that shows how far above that she is. It’s barely in that scene as it is, but by taking those usual hallmarks and remaking them into something far more extravagant but still tremendously personal and heartfelt, Born Again stands as a real standout moment among a sound that’s been crying out for them for a long time. For as far under the radar as this is likely to fly, putting all expectations and forethought aside and giving this album the time couldn’t be more worth it.
For fans of: Soccer Mommy, Florence + The Machine, girl in red
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Born Again’ by Ellis is out now on Fat Possum Records.