Swans and Moby collaborator Ladan Hussein, aka Cold Specks, digs deep into her Somali roots on her new album Fool’s Paradise. Jibril Yassin explores the world she’s built on folklore and pop music, one that’s not quite like anything she’s done before.
In Somali folklore there is the tale of Araweelo, a powerful queen who ruled the country by upending gender roles, striking fear in the hearts of men with her practices of hanging them by their testicles and, alternately, castration. Her stories likely inspired an equal mix of terror and awe as stories were passed down from generation to generation and she reigns over the title track of Fool’s Paradise, the new album from Somali-Canadian singer Ladan Hussein, aka Cold Specks.
Having grown up with the story, Hussein found herself revisiting it while working the album. She discovered links between the mythic figure’s fearsome power and her own struggle to stay alive in a time of global turmoil and instability. On ‘Fool’s Paradise’, she volleys between singing in Somali and English, as if one tongue wasn’t enough to describe these burdens. It is one of many profound links Hussein makes to her heritage on the album, a first for her as an artist who previously preferred to keep her personal life concealed, performing under the moniker Al Spx to keep her family unaware of her life as a musician.
Her identity as a black Muslim struggling with spirituality and religion fueled plenty of the sparse folk of 2012’s I Predict A Graceful Expulsion and 2014’s follow-up, 2014’s Neuroplasticity, and her sketches of Southern gospel blues were convincing without any biography. The raw emotion of a song like ‘Blank Maps’ hit hard – she sold it in her powerful refrain of “I am a goddamn believer.” But since her last album, she laid out the funeral rites for Al Spx and with the identity reveal came an outspokenness about her experiences of being Somali.
Hussein dug deeper into her background after discovering recordings of her father’s ’70s band Iftin and sought his involvement as a collaborator. The two journeyed into the past, digging through VHS and YouTube recordings of Somali pop music, most of which seeped through into her songwriting. “All these really interesting musicians from the country, their stories are never heard in the West,” Hussein said in an interview with Okayafrica.
There’s a lot to miss for acquainted listeners amidst the huge stylistic change. It’s not just Al Spx who is gone – the guitars, organs and drums that defined her previous albums have disappeared, as well. The Southern American gospel blues sound has been exchanged for a sedate version of electro-soul. It’s a jarring shift. What hasn’t changed is Hussein’s voice, which is still a commandeering focal point. No longer aiming to pierce through a storm of instrumentation, it largely leads the proceedings. It’s not an approach that works every time – some of the album’s more placid moments, like ‘New Moon’, quickly sap the slow-rolling momentum. Some arrangements can’t be airlifted by a stunning vocal alone, but when done right, it’s effective. ‘Void’ boasts one of the album’s more fleshed-out arrangements: industrial drumming complements an undercurrent of anger that Hussein threatens to bring to the surface. “You don’t know about me,” she sneers. “Better move carefully.”
Album finale ‘Exile,’ where Hussein makes the most of her new direction, fashioning together layers of choir vocals, deep bass and drum programming to capture something intimate and wistful – but you don’t have much time to get familiar with it before it fades quickly into another sampled recording. The source? Hussein’s mother, praying for good fortune to come her daughter’s way. It is an emotional suckerpunch of an ending, but it also rounds out the connections to the past weaved throughout. Fool’s Paradise is certainly the most personal Cold Specks record to date, but with so much more now open in her world, who knows what lore she’ll unleash next.