Swedish electropop musician Ester Ideskog was well on her way to completing her third album under the name Vanbot, yet it still wasn’t right. In a daring move, she scrapped those efforts and sought a break from the confines of a recording studio. To thaw her frozen inspiration, she chose an entirely new locale: the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The resulting album Siberia was written and recorded entirely on board a train trundling along the longest railway line in the world, which also runs through some of the most sparsely populated regions of the planet. If Ideskog was searching for a space to stretch out creatively, she found a good one.
What came out of the process was a rather uneven work. The vast landscapes evoked by Ideskog’s flowing synthpop on Siberia are punctuated by minimalist lyrics veiled in isolation and seclusion that she has said were more about gut feelings than song form. With that, though, her narrative and the record often suffers.
Relying on fewer words to tell a story works when it’s done right. On “Close Enough (Ulan Bator)” (each track is subtitled by a stop along the Moscow to Beijing route), she tries convincing someone that “I’ll love you if you let me.” And her repeated pleas of “I can’t get close enough” signal a deep divide she can’t cross. The overlapping beats and timing of “Stay With Me (Perm)” run on top of a droning loop, perhaps meant to mimic the disorientation of a long journey. But like a lifeline, Ideskog reassures, singing, “Still/Move/Goes speed/Comes time.”
Elsewhere on the album, a “pressure in my head” defines “Collide (Krasnoyarsk),” which smartly clashes brash, cold percussion with synthpop underpinnings, but its lyrics are too vague to grasp. In the acoustic-tinged “Hard To Get Used To (Baikal),” she rambles in a jumbled monotone, keeping the story static.
It often lands on Ideskog’s vocals to provide a welcome depth and texture to the music, beginning with the steady pulse of “Not That Kind (Moscow).”. Her delicate, pixieish voice provides a constant sense of calm, counteracting her startling command to “put my head on a stick and raise it high.” Her search continues on the uplifting “On The Fly (Omsk),” riding “on endless steel” to “hunt for thoughts on the fly” while gazing at the blurry tracks below. Throughout, she sonically references the trip by including industrialized ambient sounds from the train, like the clink/rattle of a distant car or the hush of another as it pushes ahead.
Siberia seems to have satisfied a need in Ideskog to break from production conformity, and while there are weak spots lyrically, its shadowy memories and hazy snapshots of the Russian railway emit a steady warmth you can return to.