Norway’s Malin Pettersen may be soft-spoken, but she’s far from timid. After a decade of making records, originally with the band Lucky Lips and recently as a solo performer, this deceptively fearless singer has mastered the art of using seemingly simple songs to tackle difficult questions.
Recorded in Nashville, the absorbing Wildhorse could at first pass for simply a pleasant distraction, an alt-country project shaped by Pettersen’s smooth melodies and aching vocal twang. Look closer to discover a gripping existential journey, depicting the deep despair and hard-won joy encountered in the search to lead a life with genuine purpose.
Balancing shining hopes with dreary realities, Wildhorse reveals a yearning soul. Draped in weeping steel guitar, the peaceful “California” salutes the sun-dappled version of the state, even as Pettersen cautions, “Native bones are telling stories we should hear,” and adds, “I wonder what I’ll hold on to / I haven’t figured it out yet,” suggesting an identity under construction. Restless discontent informs the peppy “Hometown,” where “the same old people don’t know where I’ve been,” and “Let’s Go Out” issues a thumping call to “get rid of this thirst” and “forget the rules.” To what end? Although Pettersen isn’t sure, she knows she wants more of something.
Meanwhile, the journey offers its own rewards. Echoing The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac in their ’70s prime, the radiant “Wildhorse Dream” finds her declaring, “Don’t know how long it takes to get there,” unsure she can go back to her previous self. The love song “Particles” wraps cosmic concerns in a soothing lullaby, with Pettersen — a philosopher disguised as an entertainer — noting, “What we do don’t mean a thing / Except for things that we give meaning.” So choose your own adventure!
These big thoughts arise from real-world problems, heard in subdued tracks exploring different chapters of a mental-health crisis. “I Don’t Care” wrestles with debilitating depression, the singer admitting, “I don’t care for breathing much / But I don’t care to die,” to the strains of a melancholy fiddle. “Weightless” achieves relief by rejecting the expectations of others, concluding, “Now I wanna live / With everything I’ve got.”
Produced by Aaron Goodrich, Ryan A. Keith, and Misa Arriaga, all of whom play on the album, Wildhorse strains against genre boundaries in refreshing ways, incorporating sounds and textures with a broader frame of reference. The languid “Holding Lonely” features a meandering instrumental passage not unlike ambient music. Elsewhere, a distorted piano frequently punches through the mix, adding an edge to the mellow vibe, and intriguing electronic noise emerges in the barroom lament “Mr. Memory.”
Wildhorse closes with the touching “Queen of the Meadow,” fast-forwarding past the struggles to imagine looking back on a life well-spent. “I want queen of the meadow [a European herb] on my grave,” she sings softly, continuing, “The good times were plenty / And the bad ones won’t bother me now.” Making the most of today is an admirable strategy, especially in these strange times, when reminders of our mortality are everywhere. Malin Pettersen has more than her share of wisdom, as well as luminous songs, and this lovely album is proof.