Reviews

Jacob Mühlrad
Time

(Deutsche Grammophon)

8/10

By day, Jacob Mühlrad is a debonair, 29-year-old man about town, winning Best Dressed awards in his native Sweden. By night, he mines the ancient patterns of choir music in an effort to unearth new reflections on the quest for spiritual clarity.

Faith predated music for Mühlrad, his devout Jewish upbringing teaching him an appreciation for the profound sense of contentedness that the most positive aspects of theism can provide. Now a non-believer, the objective on this debut album, for which he has joined with the Swedish Radio Choir, appears to have been to create a compendium of four pieces that use artistic means to access that same intangible personal space. 

When you strip it all away, to have a stated aim of using nothing more than a sequence of recorded sounds to invoke not a front-of-mind, cerebral appreciation, but rather a sense of serenity, a state of being that has no verbal or even conceptual translation but nevertheless pervades every sense and condition, well that is some undertaking.

In practice, the album succeeds on every level. The title track, on which Mühlrad amasses a Tower of Babel of voices singing variations of the titular word, which Mühlrad translated into 104 different languages and organised by linguistic root and timbre, is a paean to human connectivity, a material demonstration of the power of communication on a scale that no one life would ordinarily be asked to comprehend, a simultaneous celebration of cultural differences and of the essence which unites them all.

‘Nigun’ swells the emotional dimension that spirituality demands, tapping into a plaintive, melodic strain, while ‘Anim Zemirot’ draws a measure of anguish from the glissando of its voices, but meets it full bridle with waves of comfort, rapture and presence, the effect of which on the listener is that of being seen, of never being alone.

‘Kaddish’ is the most direct, personal expression here, with Mühlrad interspersing extracts from the Jewish prayer for the dead with words of his own for his deceased grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. It does not hide from the pain, but embraces it as the essential part of life that it is, another marker that Mühlrad is composing beyond his years. Whether that will be enough to win next year’s Best Dressed prize, though, we will have to wait to see.

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