A project worth lifting the veil and proudly revealing Jonna Lee’s true self.
Swedish musician Jonna Lee is relabelling herself again. Note that she isn’t remaking herself. She already did that when transitioning from a folk pop artist simply known by her name, releasing straightforward, albeit catchy albums such as This Is Jonna Lee, to the mysterious, avant garde iamamiwhoami. She went from being completely open with her identity to obscuring her face in music videos full of wild, eccentric and sometimes disturbing imagery. But the mystery of the beguiling artist’s identity behind iamamiwhoami is long over, Jonna Lee revealed. Three fascinating audiovisual projects later – after kin, bounty and BLUE – Lee has chosen not to change her synthpop style and dramatic aesthetics but to once again change her name. ionnalee hardly obscures her true identity, nor is it meant to, but brings Lee closer to making a full circle. With this new name comes Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten and an accompanying film that allows Lee’s requisite abstract music videos to be compiled and fleshed out into one cryptic film, putting its enigmatic creator front and center.
Lee explained the necessity of the name change is the result of iamamiwhoami’s producer Claes Björklund’s absence on this project. But regardless of the similarity in styles between that duo and ionnalee, Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is an enticing glimpse into a self-produced and therefore unfettered Jonna Lee album that is no less centered on visuals.
The trio of iamamiwhoami albums contained their provocative moments, but it’s fitting that ionnalee’s first single is “Samaritan.” This segment of the film features Lee in a stark white gown, dancing manically with backup dancers that resemble nuns, as she declares, “I don’t believe in a god, let’s leave religion out of all this/ I don’t remember promising my life and soul to bring you all bliss.” The message is clear: she’s not a fan of artist worship, and she’s not beholden to her fans either. The religious imagery is a potentially shocking choice for anyone new(er) to her music, though, especially coupled with the line “If I am what you say, I expect to be hanging from a wooden cross.”
But after essentially telling her fans to simmer down (there is, in fact, a song called “Simmer Down” on the album), Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten ultimately unfolds as a strong addition to Jonna Lee’s oeuvre and a great first showing as a solo producer. Synth and dance pop prevail, with an intriguing battle on display between her avant garde tendencies and more accessible pop. Nowhere is this illustrated more literally than on “Memento,” a track featuring deep vocals from Barbelle that juxtaposes eerie atmosphere (courtesy of some plodding cello) with sudden glitzy pop shifts on the chorus. “Gone” similarly builds from a suspenseful tinkling opener to an all-out dance beat. Another teaser single, “Dunes of Sand,” shrugs off its haunting verses, featuring Jamie Irrepressible, for a jittery beat, gated reverb and an outro of “ooh”s.
What has remained true across every iteration of Lee is that she favors supremely catchy and cathartic choruses. That holds true on “Gone,” with its loping synth line and lyrics that speak to permanence and legacy, but perhaps no song tops “Joy.” Lee opens with simple finger snaps and minimalist instrumentation before erupting on the line “This is the sound of joy.” As she teases “Play with me the game of fire,” cymbals crash and horns blare in ultimate catharsis. A blippy synth and multilayered vocals from Lee repeats this downtempo buildup on “Temple,” unleashing clanging bells along with the paranoia-inducing chorus “Their armies be close on my heels/ Chase my shadow for nothing/ They hunting for all of my skin/ The walls of my shack to cave in.” The sentiment, though, harkens back to “Samaritan” and Lee’s distaste for idolizing, as shown in the film when Lee confronts a woman singing the song to her followers and shunning Lee. The spindly Swede later recruits some friends and fights the false leader and her followers, seemingly for the right to speak her mind.
It’s impossible and counterintuitive to speak about the album and the film as one. They share songs, but the film is an entirely different presentation, even re-ordering the tracks. Both, though, are massively impressive productions for an artist, independent or otherwise. Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is certainly a project worth lifting the veil and proudly revealing Jonna Lee’s true self.