Helena Deland Attempts to Say What Cannot be Said on the Lovely 'Goodnight Summerland'

BY Safiya HopfePublished Oct 11, 2023

Helena Deland sings about connectivity — to intimate partners, passing images and the world at large — from the vantage point of someone unsure where they begin and end. Lingering in liminality and probing at the void, the Montreal songwriter has a knack for harnessing negative space and capturing the intense fragility of vulnerability.  

On Goodnight Summerland, which follows the death of her mother, Deland harnesses this superpower in the context of grief. Having undergone seismic loss, experiencing what she's called "a pure encounter with mystery," she explores absence from multiple angles. Goodnight Summerland — named for her birthplace, of which she has no true memory — is an unbearably gentle portrait of that which is impossible to hold in words and must be said anyway.

Deland's solo debut, one of our favourites of 2020, established her as a shaper of soundscapes which encapsulate alienation's paradoxes and peculiarities. Though melancholic and occasionally morbid, Someone New's edges were smoothed out by an almost bubbly digital flair, hinting at bedroom pop a la Okay Kaya and Tomberlin. It was rife with dreamstate diary entries you could nearly dance to. On Goodnight Summerland, Deland's songs move less like limbs and more like the fluttering of eyes during REM sleep. 

Here, Deland returns to the absolute basics. Goodnight Summerland is frills-free lo-fi folk with only the most careful doses of synthetic obscurity. At its hazier moments, it is reminiscent of Grouper or Skullcrusher, a dialed-down approach that allows for a more intense focus on her voice and lyrics: here, Deland shines as a poet. 

Gently fingerpicked melodies loop behind illuminating metaphors and sensory surveys. Synths swirl as though through a distant fog behind recollected conversations. At its simplest, the instrumentation on Goodnight Summerland is a single chord that swells as it's quietly plucked, against which she can project the carefully curated textures of her voice. At its more elaborate points, Deland's complex but understated tones weave clouded tapestries of feeling behind her trepidant words, with such subtlety it's easy to overlook how much weight they pull.

This minimalism is no accident. Explaining that these songs emerged from an awareness of how little words can do, and their importance regardless, Deland stated in a press release that she wanted the recordings to "emphasize the living heart inhabiting each lyric, hoping that the vulnerability it took to write them could remain intact."

On track "Saying Something" — after which, she suggests, she could have named the whole album — she speaks head-on to the difficulty of expression: "Knowing what to say isn't easy / Words feel like treacherous footing / Slippery rocks / But believe me / Saying anything might be crucial."

Part of Deland's gift lies in her ability to synthesize the surrealism of disconnection with her sharp observations. She anchors dissociative states in concrete details and draws dreamlike power from the most mundane of images. On "Spring Bug," she speaks to a figurative jolt of spiralling springtime rebirth with an itchy reality, engaging in casual conversation with her past lives.

"Bright Green Vibrant Gray" sees her in communion with a palm-size rock and, in turn, four hundred million years of geological time. "Swimmer" — a song which is, in many ways, the heart of the album — finds Deland speaking of herself standing on the beach watching her late mother float, "riding the troughs of magical thinking and crests of acceptance." These troughs and crests, marked by as many hallucinatory inklings as ice-clear annotations, are the very pulse of Goodnight Summerland.

Ghostly, graceful and deceptively deep, Goodnight Summerland establishes Deland's concise power as a songwriter. As her artistry continues to evolve, it's clear that there's more than one way for her to tell her trademark stories of the infinite worlds within our own. 
(Chivi Chivi)

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