It’s tempting to describe Juni Habel’s quiet, folky new album as “pastoral,” but that’s not quite right. While the eight songs on Carvings are rooted in the natural world, they are less bucolic than they are explorations of wilder, more tangled landscapes. Though Carvings shares a sonic palette with Habel’s previous album, 2020’s All Ears, whispers of unease lurk at the edges of the Norwegian singer and songwriter’s latest.
That surely has to do with the fact that Carvings finds Habel grieving the death of a younger sister in a car accident. The album isn’t overtly centered on that loss, but the weight of it lends a melancholy feeling to songs underpinned by a sense of impermanence that is at once wistful and matter-of-fact. The music here is austere, built around Habel’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar parts, but it’s no less absorbing for the spare arrangements.
Habel’s voice is understated, ranging in tone from light and feathery to a little bit smoky. It arrives with an intimacy that feels almost like you’re sitting close together in the same room. There’s a delicate cast to her vocals on opener “Chicory,” which she echoes herself on the chorus with a harmony part, accompanied by delicate percussion and a breathy pipe-like sound that takes liberties with the meter. Elsewhere, she strikes a lilting, almost playful air on “Little Twirl” that contrasts with the minor-key guitar, as if her present-tense narration is a bittersweet remembrance of bygone days.
Habel’s ability to evoke vivid feelings runs the other way, too. Her double-tracked vocals on “I Carry You, My Love” are haunting and unsettled, and the recording is lo-fi enough that there’s an audible background hiss, along with the sound of Habel’s breath as she leans into the microphone to sing. Whether she’s remembering the past or parsing an uncertain future, Habel’s approach is unhurried. At just over four minutes, “I Carry You, My Love,” falls in the middle of running times on Carvings.
“Rhythm of the Tides,” one of the longer songs, stretching to nearly six minutes, is the centerpiece of the album. Not a second is extraneous. Habel’s vocals are spidery murmurs as she picks out a dark, simple pattern on guitar. Swells of strings groan softly behind her as she surrenders to a natural order that is reassuring in its cycles and cadences, and implacable in its indifference to such momentary human constructs as love or grief. “The salt in the sea / is the salt in the veins running through me,” she sings, as if in recognition that the latter will someday return to the former.
Along with the mesmerizing musical arrangements, what makes Carvings compelling is the balance Habel finds between acknowledging the fleeting span of any one life, and her determination to find meaning in the transience. In that regard, Carvings is at once a eulogy and a celebration.