When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day
Two years ago, Mirel Wagner emerged from Finland like a haunting ghost, bringing with her the sparse, folk storytelling that had long been forgotten. Her songs told darkly disturbing fairy tales of death and decay, all conveyed through only her raspy, alto voice and the soft strumming of her guitar. Her approach seemed simple enough, but the combination of the lo-fi production and Mirel’s hypnotic melodies resulted in one of the best folk albums of 2012.
When I first purchased Wagner’s latest release, When the Cellar Children See the Light, I worried that the sophomore curse would hinder all the elements that made her first album great. Would the songs sound as gritty with amped up production value? Would Wagner lose sight of the muse that inspired such intense songs as “No Death” and “To the Bone”?
I was correct in my assumption that SubPop would bump up the production value, bringing in the unlikely choice of Finnish dance producer Sasu Ripatti, but fortunately, Ripatti accentuates Wagner’s brilliance with crisp clarity while still allowing her sparse approach to chill the listener to the bone. Most songs simply feature Mirel and her guitar, a combination that worked so well in 2012, but on occasion other characters emerge from the shadows, adding depth and complexity to Mirel’s morose melodies. “Ellipsis” has a possessed cello buzzing faintly in the background. Mid-way through “The Dirt” a ghoulish steel guitar wails from what resembles a distant cemetery. The low, gravelly humming on “In My Father’s House” resembles a zombie groaning just beneath the floorboards, furthering the song’s already macabre aesthetic.
“In My Father’s House”:
Wagner has improved as a songwriter as well. Her melodies are even more delicate and weary, her lyrics even darker and more finely crafted. On her first effort, Mirel’s focus on the morbid made for an entertaining listen, but this time around, her tales unwind with more power and purpose. The first side of the LP contains five songs thematically focused on the idea of innocence lost. The songs all lead back the motif of something being buried down below, in most cases, a young child (or some cases, multiple children).
On opener “1 2 3 4,” the sing-songy, nursery rhyme repetition of “1 2 3 4 / what’s underneath the floor?” only furthers the grotesque reveal of “pretty little faces” with “chewed up lips and milky milk teeth.” On “The Dirt,” a child on the verge of death ponders her eventual fate where “You can’t eat the dirt…but you’ll be in the dirt.” The funeral procession continues on “Oak Tree” where death and burial under a tree provide ” the little soul” the chance to be “free and unbound.” As with all the tracks, death is a catharsis, a release, an escape.
“1 2 3 4”:
“Elipsis” is the only track on the first side not to talk about the literal death of a child, rather it deals with the demise of the inner-child. Mirel ponders “You’re laughing the loudest / but your smile don’t reach your eyes.” In a more metaphorical approach, the youthful fire has been extinguished and the ashes have been hidden deep within. As with the other songs, the only release is death, allowing for that long forgotten joy to finally be released, a phoenix finally rising from the ashes.
As if the first half of the album wasn’t already gripping enough, Mirel saved her truly powerful work for the 2nd side of the LP. With each song, the cause of the youthful demise is not as clear cut as earlier thought. “Dreamt of a Wave,” “The Devil’s Tongue,” “Taller Than Trees,” and “What Love Looks Like” all hint towards abuse being the culprit, stealing all of the speakers naivety. On “Taller Than Trees” we “see that girl fall apart / Soon as his shadow touches her heart,” while “What Love Looks Like” questions how true love could “poison me.”
“What Love Looks Like”:
Mirel has stepped up her game on When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, moving beyond gloomy tales just for the sake of being gloomy. All of the tracks work off each other, creating a focused analysis of the death of the inner-child and how sometimes, it’s best to just move on from the pain. Or as in Mirel’s case on the closing track, take that anguish and “hold down the pillow with all of (your) might.”