Always a very private person who gives few interviews, Stina Nordenstam’s early exposure to fame apparently did not sit too well with her. Her first album, 1991’s Memories Of a Colour, was quite conventionally jazz influenced and resulted in comparisons to the likes of Rickie Lee Jones and even Bjork. The follow-up, 1993’s And She Closed Her Eyes was darker, but caught attention in part due to the singleLittle Star, which later featured in the soundtrack to the 1996 remake of Romeo and Juliet. Between these two records she came close to signing to 4AD, but label founder Ivo Watts-Russell backed out, despite professing a love for her music. However she stopped performing live in 1992 and, according to an interview with the Independent in 2004, had a breakdown while recording her third album, Dynamite, which is by far her most harrowing work.
Large parts of the album were recorded at home and at a rented apartment. The trebly atmospherics of her electric guitar are offset by beats that sound like the clanging and banging of industrial machines, strange electronic flourishes and carefully used but gorgeous orchestration. When the strings come in on Down Desire Avenue, Until and the title track they simultaneously accentuate the pain of the songs’ intimate subject matters yet offer a kind of hope, “like the sun here in November” as Stina herself sings at the start of Almost a Smile.
It can take time before Dynamite’s bleak beauty fully reveals itself. Stina’s voice is deceptively small and may seem thin and girlish to the newcomer, but it belies an impressive range. Here, though, her voice is steady, with no over emoting. This creates a powerful dynamic against the bleakly confessional lyrics and the result is the sound of someone who wants to hold back and keep their secrets to themselves, but finds that they can no longer do so. Adding to this effect is the way her vocals sit high in the mix, which gives the feeling that dark secrets are being whispered directly to you. On the title track, obsessive, broken love is described in fragments, with its one word chorus revealing the volatile nature of the narrator. As the song progresses the lyrics gradually give more details away and towards the end it has crystallised into something really quite sinister. It is one of a number songs on the record with either a threat or delivery of violence.
Mary Bell is so abstract it almost fades into the night that Stina describes, as she pictures the titular character (based on the real life 10 year old killer of the same name) in bed, “protected by the blackness” after a murder. It is followed by the unblinking fatalism of The Man With the Gun (“I knew you would come…I didn’t expect to be spared for so long”). The song drifts from a suicidal fantasy to a real time situation, suggesting that even though the narrator tells herself that meeting the man is her destiny, she has most likely done her best to engineer it herself (“standing here beside you is such a relief“). It is a chilling and brilliant piece of storytelling.
In Until, Stina fully embodies a damaged, wrathful soul, looking to avenge herself against the one who has wronged her (“Until you bleed, until you cry. Until you hurt as much as I“), and on This Time, John, she sings as a violent perpetrator with the same level of detachment as in The Man With the Gun, suggesting the levels of violence anyone is capable of if subjected to the right conditioning and experiences. The song is based on the real life murder of 14 year old John Hron by four teenage neo-nazis in Sweden. These young men were obviously not born with this hate and violence inside them, but it is something that developed through the course of their childhood and adolescence. Mary Bell was not born a monster either, but rather subjected to horrendous abuse from a young age. She acted out in the only way she understood.
Hate, pain and anger can only build up inside someone before there is an explosion of some sort. When that happens – like dynamite – it can cause destruction to themselves and everything around them. Where as a lot of bands and artists may have chosen to express difficult emotions such as these through screaming and noise, Stina’s songs of quiet desperation ring truer than most.