UNIVERSAL MUSIC (UNI602448333025 02)
Núria Graham’s homespun folk-pop carries a playful sensibility. A sense of wonder pervades the Irish-Catalan singer-songwriter’s breezy music: When Graham relays a laconic story or asks a lilting question in her velvety, laid-back voice, you lean in closer. On 2020’s Marjorie, Graham explored abstruse reflections about death, heritage, and memory, couched in pleasant, surfy guitar tones and keys that occasionally flattened out her personality. With her fourth album Cyclamen, Graham course-corrects toward a more intentional point of view, lighting up her delicate music with winding, jazzy vocal melodies and a sly sense of humor that brings her elliptical lyrics to life.
Named after a Mediterranean flower whose blooms resemble butterflies suspended in flight, Cyclamen draws on that naturalistic conceit through gossamer strings and horns, lending Graham’s sound a newly cinematic burnish. The album slips between surrealistic stories set on Italian isles populated by flora and fountains, but she keeps things grounded with a bedrock of closely mic’d piano and double bass. Graham always sounds in repose; her voice flits over twinkling chord progressions on “Yes It’s Me, the Goldfish!” as she compares the enclosure of a fishbowl to the mundanity of life. She experiences both comfort and distress as she peers out at the world, a perspective that endures across Cyclamen’s ruminations on home and memory. The music is vibrantly off-kilter, locking into different airy grooves to draw out her poetic tales, even in its more traditional moments. The delicate “Fire Mountain Oh Sacred Ancient Fountain” is pared down to basic elements—plucked strings, a striding guitar line—that briskly glide around each other, highlighting Graham’s skill with folk simplicity.
Cyclamen showcases Graham’s talent for hushed, reverent folk-pop while making room for experimentation. Two iterations of the dreamy interlude “Procida” bracket the album, both stripped-down tracks that layer Graham’s backing vocals into resounding instruments of their own. On the memorable outlier “Disaster in Napoli,” she adds further dimension: A grungy, feedback-loaded guitar, à la Sonic Youth, describes an unnamed catastrophe tearing apart the titular city. Smoky and agitated, the song is a tense detour that displays Graham’s far-reaching impulses.
Graham’s rambling vocal delivery lends itself well to the album’s occasionally dark stories, recalling Aldous Harding’s sardonic folk-pop or Destroyer’s fragmented philosophizing. Graham’s humor appears in surprising left turns, as on “Yes It’s Me, the Goldfish!” (After recalling a particularly disturbing incident about a woman who suffered burns in an accident, she simply murmurs, “How fucked up is that?”) The more offbeat lines don’t feel tossed off, instead giving her ornate music another dash of charisma. Over roving piano and double bass on the highlight “The Catalyst,” she sing-speaks a stream-of-consciousness rant that grows increasingly wistful, ranging from wanting a “party and a kiss” to seeing the devil in her room. “But I don’t really mind,” she says, at peace with death at her door. “As long as he’s just sitting here.” It’s a strange, fantastical moment that joins Graham’s whimsical lyrics with a crushing sense of reality.
Cyclamen’s ruminative moments work in tandem with its daydreamy instrumentation, a balancing act Graham extends to the album’s most transcendent songs. On “The Beginnings of Things,” the refrain of the song title becomes a pensive mantra aimed at her younger self. It culminates with fingerpicked guitar and grandiose strings: “It’s no secret that I like the beginnings of things,” she sings, slightly modulating the melody each time, leaving space for ambiguity around her feelings on starting anew. Like Graham’s best songs, it prods you to adopt the same kind of cockeyed curiosity about the world and its everyday uncertainties.