“Warnings” is a Major Breakthrough for I Break Horses

While recently writing my albums of the decade list, my mind started connecting the dots between the records I enjoyed the most in the last ten years. A common link between many was that they sounded ambitious and vast, yet still maintained a sense of personality and intimacy. Albums like Tamaryn’s The Waves, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors, and Bjork’s Vulnicura were three just from the top ten that came to mind as fitting into this framework. They all succeeded at scratching the itch I have for big, dramatic sounds, but also my desire to hear music that reflects an individual with distinct charisma, which tends to be my primary focus in the medium.

Warnings, the latest album by I Break Horses (the recording project of Swedish singer/songwriter Maria Linden), is a strong entrant into this class of album. Its release comes after a six-year hiatus since 2014’s Chiaroscuro; in the last year, I had coincidentally been revisiting her earlier music and wondering what happened to her, assuming the project had just ended without much fanfare. Her 2011 debut, Hearts, was the archetypical early 2010s electronic dream pop album that was very listenable, glossy, and chill, but didn’t have enough personality or originality to be more than a collection of solidly crafted, kind of forgettable pop songs. Warnings is a much more ambitious release that also feels personal and distinct, which is what makes it such a satisfying breakthrough.

The difference in Linden’s approach is obvious from the first song, “Turn,” which dispenses with typical pop lengths and breathes freely over the course of nine minutes, which are built around a repeated arpeggio and dense rhythms. The lyrics describe a tumultuous relationship that changes over time, so the song has a reason to go this long as it conveys her shifting emotions. The words don’t exactly jump off the page if you just read them, but they’re elevated by the whole sumptuous atmosphere the song creates, as well as Linden’s voice, which remains the biggest strength of her work. Beyond just the subjective “she sounds great” aspect, there is a sincerity in her delivery, and she can range from delivering soaring choruses to the quiet parts of this song that give it a sense of solitude and intimacy.

The release of Warnings was prefaced by a stellar run of singles that guaranteed I was going to love this album way more than anyone else who wastes time writing about music. “Death Engine” is in a similar vein to “Turn,” in that it uses length and space to tell a dramatic story about suicide and loss. “I’ll Be the Death of You,” “Neon Lights,” and “The Prophet” are pop songs from Linden’s old playbook, with earworm melodies, smooth production, and more straight-forward lyrics about relationships. But even those more traditional songs show further self-assuredness with her craft. They all take their time and the focus continues to be more on Linden expressing herself with her voice than just on cultivating a cool aesthetic. The album also sprinkles in some short ambient mood pieces, which help break up the pop songs while showing different sides of Linden’s creativity. The only real misfire on the album is the last track, “Depression Tourist,” and even that has less to do with the craft and more to do with me being a cranky music boomer about autotune. I will never understand why someone who has talent like Linden’s would mangle their voice with that sort of gimmickry, and it feels out of step with the rest of the album’s organic, soulful vibe.

That’s a small complaint when the rest of the album gives the listener so much, and it’s also a natural side effect of the ambition that makes the other songs so memorable. When announcing her new album after such a long break, Linden vowed that she wanted “to create the most intimate and sincere songs I felt I had in me.” Warnings delivers on that promise, and she didn’t have to trade off any of what made her previous music so appealing to get there. This album’s sound and its depth are on a different level, and few recent albums have had this combination of evocative singing and songwriting with addictive pop hooks.