AND SO THE ENIGMATIC Mirel Wagner steps like a revenant back into our lives. Her self-titled debut two years ago set the tone, ghostly and erotic Delta blues from the then 23-year-old Ethiopian Finn. Wagner’s hypnotic sound depends on an intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a vocal poignant and macabre in its innocence. To listen to it is to go where only Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads or P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love have trod before, a place of shimmering horror almost salved by love. That first album took us to an underworld where a lover’s adoration for his bride is not interrupted by death and where a girl is seduced by the devil. Things are more sophisticated and even more troubling on When The Cellar Children See The Light Of Day.
That album title sets the scene, and its opening track, 1234, won’t let you go. Against bare production, shudderingly slow, our narrator breathes: “One, two, three, four, what’s underneath the floor?” You know what it is – “Pretty little eyes, pretty little face” – while our hero (“big fat belly, breathing outside”) prepares to enter. As Wagner’s closely miked voice intones his thoughts in your brain, you recoil – and see his own horror. “I got a big, big heart and lots of love… and it’s hard.” We know what’s hard but, if we can stand it, we can also see this twisted life may be a purgatory for him, too. Electric and not exploitative but revelatory.
The album’s second track, The Dirt, takes you further, sound and sentiment exploring Wagner’s African roots as plaintive picked guitar accompanies a child desperate to comfort its mother on the edge of dust-bowl starvation. “You can’t eat the dirt, even if you wanna…” Two chords, a harmony and a resilient voice as weary as the death you know is coming.
There’s another dead child on the single, Oak Tree, and what’s so strange is that it’s not anti-climactic yet; ah no, by now you’re deep into this universe. The story is freighted with tenderness. As guitar strums and voices croon, the song’s subject explains: “A lady left me here… with a trembling voice, she sang me to sleep.” Buried by its mother, the baby is wished sweet dreams – and that’s what it gets, lullabied by the voices it hears around it, its soul “now free and unbound”.
In Taller Than Tall Trees, a narcotic blend of Mazzy Star and Patti Smith, adolescents worship each other in primal lust as a girl prepares to be married to a much older man; while on What Love Looks Like, a woman raises a brow: is this it?
Brace yourself. This album is more clinging than quicksand, it is uncompromising, transcendent voodoo.