Michael’s Book on Bears—the enchanting and slyly provocative second album by Norwegian duo Konradsen—began like a postcard, an open invitation to leave the cities of the world behind. During the dawning days of the pandemic, singer Jenny Marie Sabel and multi-instrumentalist Eirik Vildgren finally made good on a plan they’d both considered: exiting Oslo to return to the rural reaches of northern Norway, where they’d both been raised. Eirik decamped to Senja, a mountain-bound island at the edge of the Norwegian Sea. With her young family, Jenny landed further east in her hometown of Storfjord, becoming a schoolteacher and building a cottage in her parents’ backyard with her husband by hand.
Any fears of anti-culture shock—that is, suspicions that these big-city musicians would be waylaid by the provincialism of their new old towns—quickly vanished. The setting was marvelous, sure, but so were the people: their spirit, their self-reliance, their perspective. Sabel wanted to share that epiphany, to ask the rest of the world to join them there. But the 44 finished minutes of Michael’s Book of Bears never feel that simple or blatant. Instead, these idiosyncratic and elegant pieces of orchestral folk-pop are a testament to the surprising ways our lives can unfold, to the shapes our stories can take when we allow them to exist beyond the dominant narratives of our scenes and times.
We can find new life in old folkways, for instance, as Jenny suggests in the sly anthem “Maybe I Like Fermentation?” We can find as much inspiration as comfort in images we thought we already knew, as she offers in balletic piano beauty “Pillow Mountain.” We can find home in an obvious place that we somehow never expected, as she realizes in opener “Out in the Backyard,” a perfect thesis of a tune that’s every bit as magnetic as the landscape it captures. “We broke the wheel of strange design/that shaped all our time in this cultural empire,” Jenny sings as naturally as if she were breathing during “Out in the Backyard,” a musical picture of the home her family indeed built in the backyard. Inspired by the Mikael Niemi’s classic tale of northern Scandinavian intrigue, To Cook a Bear, and experiences Konradsen had back at home, Michael’s Book of Bears feels like a diary, distilled into its inspirational essence and then recast as 11 gorgeous hymns, all proud of the woods from which they came.
Konradsen’s winning debut, 2019’s Saints and Sebastian Stories, was an admittedly scattershot endeavor. Jenny and Eirik used it as a catchment for all the ideas of their then-young band, with disparate tunes interwoven by oft-ostentatious arrangements. As they took those songs to the stage, though, the difficulties of playing every part live forced them to consider the true essence of the tracks, the elements that made them most powerful. They stripped away what seemed newly superfluous, letting the songs stand independently of their extravagance.
This epiphany became a guiding principle for Michael’s Book on Bears. Off and on for six months, Jenny (very pregnant with her second child) and Eirik decamped to a rustic cabin at the foot of a mountain in Storfjord. Its big black wood stove worked overtime against the snow mounting outside as winter came in waves. Alongside drummer Ivar Myrset Asheim and bassist Ivar Myrset Asheim, the duo built these songs in intentionally basic fashion, omitting the textural eccentricities of their debut so that these stories from the home front could stand on their own, like that cottage in the backyard. Jenny and Eirik gradually let some of those old layers drift back in, adding depth and expressive flair to these sturdy songs. The subtle dub wobble of “Let It Pour Like the Old Days,” the fluttering horns and prismatic rhythm of “Michael,” the choral ecstasy of “I.O.U.”: Konradsen gave themselves space to decorate what they’d taken such care to build.
Michael’s Book of Bears affords glimpses into the lives Jenny, Eirik, and those around them lead in Norway’s high latitudes and the everyday magic it conjures. There is fish roe and the Northern Lights, fire and ice, a lullaby-like cover of Terje Nilsen’s document of existence high in Scandinavia and a song rendered in the tongue of the indigenous Sámi people. Pulsing like a minimalist masterpiece but somehow swinging with soul, too, “Fieldfare” looks at tragedy and finds comfort in natural cycles of loss and regrowth. “Scandinavian Dynamite” feints as an alt-rock hit of the mid-’90s, then surges into a celebration of what we learn from our days of youthful innocence and exploration in forgotten little towns. Punctuated by a mighty spoken-word passage from poet Fredrik Høyer, “Thickest Birch” is a testament to the wonder of existence where people and environment actually coexist, tacitly tending to one another’s needs. The world Konradsen builds during Michael’s Book of Bears is one with rewards more meaningful than money, where connectivity is the greatest form of wealth.
Jenny often teases herself for the way she writes and sings in English, where she stumbles upon phrasings and neologisms that perhaps suggest a certain naivete or cultural distance. “What will you think of me when time breaths us in the neck?” goes one such delightfully inscrutable moment, at the start of the brilliant “I.O.U.” These moments, though, are key to the wisdom nestled inside Michael’s Book on Bears, or to that often-underserved notion that we can make our own life and world from whatever fascinations and spare parts we have found along the way. It is the semantic equivalent of a DIY project, of trying something out in your way and for your own needs. The songs on Michael’s Book on Bears are alternately romantic, sentimental, tender, and wry, their smart arrangements sweeping you in like a strong undertow. Their real work, though, is to push you out again, toward a life you have imagined but not yet lived, no matter where it happens.