Mirel Wagner - When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2014-08-11

Appropriately for an act signed to Sub Pop, Mirel Wagner takes a hefty dose of inspiration from Nirvana’s quiet, atmospheric moments, including their frequently chilling imagery. ‘1 2 3 4’, the first track on her second album, is centred around clipped, arid acoustic guitar just like Nevermind’s ‘Polly’, while Wagner’s equally dry vocal recalls PJ Harvey.

Despite being born in Ethiopia and raised in Helsinki, Wagner’s fragile, sombre folk is shot full of Southern gothic creepiness, like she’s sleepwalking through a True Blood plotline. Each song summons long shadows and dustbowl sadness. “Goodnight, my darlin’… I’ll push down the pillow/ with all of my might,” she slurs on the closing ‘Goodnight’. Meanwhile, ‘Ellipsis’ and 'The Dirt', about a mother and daughter dying of thirst, both recall Nick Cave’s murder ballad duet with Kylie Minogue, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’.

The songs here consist of nothing more than Wagner’s always restrained vocals and her starkly strummed guitar, occasionally embellished by a minor element such as ghostly backing vocals on ‘Oak Tree’. As the album's title suggests, Wagner’s lyrical concerns seem to frequently spotlight unsettling childhood experiences. As well as the girl anticipating death on ‘The Dirt’, ‘Taller Than Trees’ instructs us to "See a girl dressed as a woman/ Here's a man who lies/ See that girl fall apart/ soon as his shadow touches her heart".

On the album’s dreamy-eyed highlight ‘My Father’s House’, Wagner tells us everything is nice and right, before going on to detail how “The children are polite/ You never hear them cry” and that “The pictures on the wall/ never look into your eyes”. With just a few sparse lines, hymned over minimal, ringing guitar-strums, she paints a spine-tingling picture of unease and suppressed abuse. Yeah, it’s super creepy.

If anything, Wagner could probably rein in the occasional overt touches of horror. Her ability to vividly summon a situation with her words means she doesn’t need go Halloween on our asses; she can stick to Twin Peaks chills. But maybe I’m missing the point a little, and the macabre elements are central to her gothic balladry.

When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day is woven from many sources, most of them easy to pinpoint, but Wagner has used them to create something that genuinely feels her own. Her songs take place in a different world, one as full of beauty as it rotten with fear and violence. Such material could get tired on a third album, but for now we can just be impressed that Wagner has taken the most basic of elements and made something face-slappingly original. 

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