Sarah Blasko – I Awake

Sarah Blasko fights the good fight on her remarkable fourth album I Awake, writes VICTORIA BIRCH.

If Sarah Blasko were unknown, I Awake wouldn’t make it out of the web’s self-promotion ghetto. What label would invest a chunk of change in a record that’s so out of time? Where are the electronics? Where’s the overt sexuality? Where’s the fucking zeitgeist? Blasko’s fourth album doesn’t meet the current criteria for “Things We Should Like”. Much like its predecessor (_As Day Follows Night_) it’s offbeat and anachronistic, made by someone well versed in popular music but who opts to keep its influences at arm’s length.

Anyone who’s rolled in the deep with Adele will get caught offside by Sarah Blasko’s take on the string’n’soar combo. Instead of gold-plated vocals that throttle orchestras into submission, she grapples with 50 or so instruments and emerges bloodied and bruised. At one point on ‘An Arrow’, I wanted to run in and rescue her. Those goddamn violins were going to eat her alive. She’s never had the biggest of voices (pleasing though it is), pitting it against the entire Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra would seem foolhardy at best.

It works because narrative tension depends on uncertainty: Is the protagonist going to make it or not? If Blasko sounds like she’s struggling it’s not because she misjudges her abilities, it’s because she chooses to pitch herself into battle. On ‘Illusory Light’, the orchestra’s main purpose is to rush in at the end and toss her voice around like a small boat in a rough swell. She’s stretched to breaking point, scrapping to be heard and is more affecting than any lung-busting diva doing their best Shirley Bassey impression.

There are points where the sheer scale of sound might kill Blasko, however this is only part of the story. Her resistance, her resurgence comes when she shuts down the orchestra or boots them out altogether. An ‘Oyster, A Pearl’ needs only a piano, a torch-song melody and Blasko’s voice (limitations be damned) to create something that towers as high as the orchestra’s mightiest crescendo.

“The failures and the will to survive are realised in every note.”

The mini-wars Blasko wages drive the album’s darker tones. Until now she’s never been an artist to unnerve but this record is, at times, genuinely unsettling. The eponymous opener runs full tilt from any reputation Blasko has as a fey indie lovely. Filled with hot tribal drums and grunting brass this is a previously unseen Sarah; one that’s “feelin’ it burn like a sin” and ready to break stuff. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Her’e sees her teeter on the edge of a vertiginous octave while violins swoop around her in icy waves. It’s beautiful, strange and as fragile as a nervous breakdown.

These more demanding elements mean the likes of ‘New Country’ arrive like an antidote. Its lolloping, easy gait and buttery phrasing is as pleasing as anything Blasko has recorded, but in this context it’s a gentle cavalry sent in to sooth and reassure.

Contrast is the genius of I Awake. Blasko has produced an album that plays almost like a concept album, despite having no obvious narrative thread. Whether it’s a spiritual, existential or romantic struggle, the failures and the will to survive are realised in every note. It’s not the addition of an orchestra per se that makes I Awake a great record, it’s Blasko’s ability to etch their presence into her wounds, temper her weaknesses with their absence. It’s brave and the pay-off is wonderful.