Album covers can often act like windows.
At their most effective, they offer valuable insights into the intended themes of a record. Often times, the music in question inevitably needs to be heard before the curtains can be fully drawn. However in the case of Sienna Dahlen’s new record Ice Age Paradise, the album’s overarching ideas are laid bare in the landscape framed on its cover: A barren field in winter; sparse trees stripped bare by the season; the resilient tips of evergreens peering up from behind a ridge; man-made tracks in the foreground, the hint of a barn roof, and a fencepost the only evidence of human life; a brilliant sunrise/set on the horizon signalling serenity and change.
It’s striking artwork, even when viewed independently. It’s an image that speaks to endurance and the beauty that can be found in exploring and overcoming the bleakest of feelings. Luckily for us, the image is merely a primer for an excellent collection of songs that delves into these ideas even further.
Ice Age Paradise is a record informed by loss. Dahlen lost her mother before the project began; around the same time, she also separated from her long-time partner. These events loom large on the record, their presence most notably felt in the disarming rawness of the compositions. Dahlen, alongside a group of musicians led by Toronto-based composer Andrew Downing, creates wonderfully spacious music on Ice Age that feels edgeless. The album flows freely, capturing all the emotional twists and turns tied to cathartic healing. Its tendency to drastically shift moods can be heard in the first two tracks: “Drifting Daydream” finds Dahlen sailing to the moon set to blissful, airy jazz, before dropping into the starkness of “Cold”, where she ponders mortality with lines like “it’s been said we’re hangin’ from thread, hangin’ from thread in the wind”.
Dahlen’s performance is a revelation. The Toronto-based songwriter rarely relies on drastic changes in volume or style to amplify emotional intensity and she resists the temptation to over-sing. For the most part, her vocals are minimal and hang spectrally against the backdrop of Downing’s arrangements. In songs like “Blind Spot”, Dahlen arrives at her vocal peak subtly with fluid precision, making the song’s penultimate section all the more effective. Stylistic nods to singers like Thom Yorke, Sharon Van Etten, and even Nick Cave can be heard throughout Ice Age Paradise. Allusions to Cave’s delivery and macabre imagery are especially striking on the title track, where Dahlen adopts a more poetic tone and conjures up images of black magic, neon signposts, and a “ravenous raven cawin’ and cravin’ sin” over delicate instrumentation that barely reveals itself.
It’s hard to classify Ice Age Paradise as a feel-good record. It’s a challenging listen that disregards conventional song writing, potently capturing human loss in a way that feels almost unfiltered. This is also why the album works. Good artists find a way to tackle difficult emotions with sincerity and clarity of vision . Sienna Dahlen has crafted a record that simultaneously expresses grief and grapples with how to transcend it; that tries to find peace and understanding in the coldest of states.