Sky Stacked Full makes me feel weird. A palpable tension infuses the album. Each song is like steel cable stretched taut and ready to snap, as if at any moment the music might fly completely off the handle into ecstasy, despair, or lunacy. The listening experience is akin to being pinned down alive onto an insect spreading board. In short, I like it.
Coproduced with David Occhipinti, SSF is the second album from Toronto’s Anna Atkinson, who the Toronto Star calls “the least earthbound artist we've heard in ages.” It follows her 2011 debut, Mooniture, and continues to make full use of Atkinson's wide range of talents, including voice, violin, viola, piano, accordion, guitar, saw, and celesta.
The album opens with two cryptic questions: In “Snowshoe,” we have a song full of mourning violin, hypnotic electronic scatter, and Atkinson’s windswept voice calling to us from across a tundra.
"You've given all of your heart
To the snow on your eyelash
And your numb frozen cheeks.
Why shouldn't you?"
The next song, “Water,” carries this enigmatic riddle further. Backed by sometimes jarring violin and off-kilter piano, Atkinson presents another paradoxical inquiry:
"If the water is clear, my friend
Then why can't I find the end?"
The two questions are never answered, and we are left for the rest of the album suspended in uncertainty and mystery.
Not all of the songs are as high-strung as the first two, but they are tinged with some degree of encroaching madness. “Nobody Knows You,” for instance, starts out as a straightforward love song with the rather pedestrian notion that “nobody knows you like I do,” but quickly gets turned on its head. Atkinson’s singing becomes increasingly abstract and engulfed by distortion and frayed guitar, like the inside of a raw nerve, ending in a confusion of sound.
SSF weaves each song into one, cohesive tapestry, and the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.
“I’ll Buy You Lunch” is the lightest song on the album, but even it is ultimately cloaked in enigma, with lyrics like “I’ll buy you lunch someday; Just don’t give your life away” and “We’re all inside playing cards.”
SSF weaves each song into one, cohesive tapestry, and the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. However, if we’re talking singles, then “When We Were Young” is the album’s highlight. Backed by simple, seesawing violin, Atkinson’s singing drops all pretensions and bares itself as this soaring, sad, naked thing. It’s the album’s most emotionally powerful song. Her other vocal experiments are consistently interesting, but here we see that, when she wants, Atkinson is perfectly capable of putting the theatrics aside and simply tearing our goddamn guts out.
SSF is an engrossing listening experience, darkly beautiful and fascinating. It plunges us into the clear water that has no end. In this age of permanent distraction, the very fact that it can pin me in place long enough to feel so deeply is, in itself, the most impressive thing of all.