Engaged Pessimism

7ebra’s Bird Hour

Listening to Bird Hour, the debut album by Swedish twins Inez and Ella Johannson, AKA 7ebra, is a disquieting experience.

7ebra at Rough Trade East. London, May 2023.

The record reveals an interior space that would otherwise be inaccessible, like a one-way window at the zoo.

On the first track, “Secretly Bad”, four bars of a single, throbbing bass note leads us to the opening line, delivered in the slow, breathy warbling found on many young women’s TikTok clips: “Care more about how I look than how I feel”.

Nearly a minute elapses before a few simple drum beats join the guitar. This is music at its most minimal, just enough to propel the lyrics forward:

I think I lied too many times
I think
I think I see everything
You’re looking at me
You’re looking at me
What’s the point in anything?

The message here is subtle but profound. It’s one thing to look at someone and another entirely to see without looking.

Like those creatures at the zoo separated from the viewing public by a thick layer of mirrored glass, the singer is held captive by her own reflection. She knows she’s on display, that she’s being looked at, but her relationship with those spectators is one-sided.

Reviewing Bird Hour for Pitchfork, Jude Noel writes about the photo on the cover, in which two young girls “have their backs turned as they hunch over a sparsely furnished dollhouse, blissfully unaware of the camera”.

Although those girls are now grown women, they continue to close themselves off from the world. “The music they make together as 7ebra is similarly insular,” he writes, “immersed in a secret language.”

Noel decides that the Johanssons must enjoy “toying with their audience”. He doesn’t seem interested in peering beneath this playful façade. In his eyes, the private world these sisters construct is simply “charming” and “homespun”, like knick-knacks sold at a crafts fair.

But the more time you spend with this record, the more apparent it becomes that this impression is a ruse.

Although the singers’ reflections are directed inward, we feel the barely restrained savagery behind them.

Bird Hour does have a homemade sound, the sort of chamber music that derives power from privation. This is a carefully cultivated illusion, however.

Home recording technology has reached the point where beginners can make like Brian Wilson, conjuring virtual orchestras with a single click. It’s no longer possible to tell whether a record was made in a bedroom or a professional studio by how it sounds.

Staying committed to minimalism amid such a surfeit of possibility requires dedication. And 7ebra have it.

That’s why they enlisted Tore Johannson, the celebrated producer of The Cardigans and Franz Ferdinand, to make the record. His contribution is subtle but helps give Bird Hour the immediacy of an amateur recording.

While the twins are much too young to have experienced the musical scarcity of the pre-streaming era directly, they demonstrate a profound understanding of less-is-more aesthetics.

Although 7ebra keeps things simple, with spare guitar parts punctuated by keyboard figures, the Malmö duo avoid the excessively precious sound that undermines so many examples of bedroom pop.

There’s an edge to Bird Hour.

Vocal and instrumental lines are ever so slightly misaligned. Organ and mellotron notes clump together messily, complicating our sense of the beat. And there are enough traces of distortion to remind us that human beings can make machines misbehave.

Most of the album’s songs also convey a sense of thwarted possibility, with codas that introduce ideas there’s not enough time to develop.

These musical qualities reinforce 7ebra’s lyrics, which map the territory between rage and rumination.

Riot Grrl bands did that, too. But whereas Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, and Sleater-Kinney communicated ambivalence in shouts and snarls, the Johannson sisters turn down the volume. The softer they sing, the harder they strike.

From a rhetorical standpoint, this can be confusing.

In one sense, it’s similar to the approach popularised by trap artists like XXXTENTACION, who invert the traditional relationship between vulnerability and aggression.

The crucial difference is that women continue to be at a structural disadvantage in our society despite the substantial inroads made by feminism in the public sphere.

“If I Ask Her” makes it clear that the duo’s reticence is a measured response to a dangerous world in which women continue to find themselves segregated and silenced: “You seem to think that I enjoy to be unheard”.

But no matter how desirable it would be to walk away from the men who talk, talk, talk at them, they recognise that there is danger in rejecting this miserable company.

On “I Have a Lot to Say”, another account of one-way communication leads to the line “Nothing about you tells me you’re okay”.

Surveys routinely indicate that Scandinavia is the part of the world where women are treated best. Yet that is cold comfort when their daily interactions are still plagued by micro-aggressions that could turn into macro-aggressions with little warning:

Is there a void that you want to fill?
Leave me alone
I don’t give a shit
Something’s really wrong with your monologue
Talk my head off some more
I bleed and I’m sore

These words would be disturbing no matter how they were delivered. Somehow, though, the fact that they are muted makes them cut even deeper.

When Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker, or, yes, Courtney Love would belt out a harsh take on the existential predicament of women, they were at least able to wrangle catharsis out of it.

On Bird Hour, by contrast, we are confronted again and again by the prospect of frustration without exhilaration.

Coping with internalised misogyny takes so much of women’s energy that it feels impossible to assert their right to be more than a space to fill: “I have a lot to say/Just not to your face”.

7ebra’s music is profoundly melancholy. Even when it communicates resignation, though, it is still trying to communicate.

The song “Lighter, Better” captures this tension with particular clarity.

After once again expressing the paradoxical condition that plagues so many young women today – “I feel really empty/And then I feel too full” – the lyrics bring us to an appropriately restrained conclusion, which the Johannson sisters sing several times over: “I want to be a little better/Feeling really bitter”.

These days, engaged pessimism may be the only sustainable mode of existence. 7ebra’s Bird Hour helps lead the way.

Photograph courtesy of Paul Hudson. Published under a Creative Commons license.