As El Perro del Mar, Swedish songwriter Sarah Assbring slowly developed from the Kate Bush-evoking chamber indie of her earliest singles into a more layered pop sound, gradually employing more electronic elements as the years rolled on. With Pale Fire, she expands on the reference points of house, dub, and disco production that characterized her glowing 2009 album, Love Is Not Pop. The album keeps up the shattered drama that's colored all of El Perro del Mar's work from the start, with depressive undertones bubbling below the synthy sounds and Assbring's softly gliding vocals driving home an understated hopeless feel in even the most upbeat songs. Things stay dark but never cross the line into morbidity. More so, Assbring has been down so long it must look like up by now, especially with otherwise lively productions like "Hold Off the Dawn" latched around lyrics like "Ain't no need to talk about the future, baby" and "Is there a way to hold off the dawn? It's just another day." Space drums and a slinky rhythm section distract from the heavy mood, but it's still there. Some of the dubby basslines ("Love in Vain") and brash synth sounds ("Home Is to Feel Like That") from the last album carry over, but the strength of Pale Fire comes in the new terrain the album explores. Album centerpiece "Walk on By" throws back to 1991 with cloistered radio R&B bass, wobbly spoken word samples, and a legitimate new jack swing drum track that pushes the song along to the MIDI horn section of the chorus. The song wouldn't sound out of place on a mixtape with "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega or similar backward-looking sounds by her trip-hop-enthused contemporaries like Sky Ferreira. The minimal deep bass pulse of "I Was a Boy" paints a more skeletal picture from the same palette, and highlights some of the similarities between El Perro del Mar and the more boisterous output of fellow Swede Robyn. The various shifts in style can make Pale Fire a somewhat uneven affair at times, but at their best, the songs capture some of the same insular magic of Arthur Russell's bedroom disco moments or Brenda Ray's gloriously disjointed dub reworkings. While a more focused production ethic might have made for a more consistent album, Pale Fire still goes places the last album never dreamed and hopefully opens doors for even more drastic developments to come.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas