One of the great things about music is that it, unlike any other art form, doesn’t always require your full attention. You can listen to it as you ride the train to work in the morning, cook dinner, or even just sit and stare out the window all afternoon. You can listen and enjoy it without even recognizing that you’re listening to it. That’s why they put music to films, and why that old cliché about the soundtracks of our lives still has some truth to it.
With this is mind, we have Opticks, the delightful second album by Norway’s Silje Nes. This is a subtle album, quiet and unimposing, with 11 songs that are calming but never boring. Like her previous album, Ames Room, this is tender, beautiful and introspective music that could accompany your whole day. The expanses are wide and lush, yet it’s as intimate as an old sweater. Opticks is also more mature than her previous outing, which at times can seem like the happenstance work of an adorable child. It’s clear that Silje Nes is coming into her own as an artist here.
Rare is the voice that can be both intoxicating and detached, but Nes manages it. Like Cat Power at her finest or Avey Tare at his most demure, she sounds the way lullabies are supposed to: right next to your ear, inside your head and in a faraway land all at once. In the chorus of “Crystals” she murmurs “You’re already asleep” in a lilting voice over a soft drum machine and calming melody that makes me believe her. Her voice is also able to ground the small tinklings and experiments she allows herself on a song like “Branches,” which starts out lost but soon finds a simple guitar line to latch on to.
Opticks is named after the physicist Sir Isaac Newton’s 1704 book about the science of light and optics. It might seem counter-intuitive to name a piece of audio after a treatise on sight, but Nes seems to know that her work does not exist purely on its own. It works in tandem with our other four senses to shape our moods — what we hear is just as important as what we’re looking at. This album’s place is to accompany gray, autumnal Sundays, long train trips and early mornings. Let it wash over you and color your mood as you gaze out the window. It’ll likely make even familiar images into something new and beautiful.