Breaking your thumb is a pretty serious deal for a professional pianist. The copy I have of Nils Frahm’s ‘Screws’ comes with a rather heartfelt letter:
“Playing piano, and playing it for wonderful people is the greatest joy I can imagine. For a couple of days, I felt this could all be over.”
It must be unsettling – the dawning realisation that something so simple will put your career on hold for a time, especially for an artist as prolific as Frahm. A mere month must seem a lifetime when you’d released two critically acclaimed LP’s in three years alongside countless collaborations, a handful of EPs and an endless touring schedule.
“That day I was sitting in the emergency room, feeling rather dizzy while thinking of all a zillion shows coming up and all the people involved. I realised in that moment how busy things had become.”
However, falling out of a bunk-bed in your studio is not the most dignified way to make yourself out of work. That someone who works so hard is brought down by sleeping in his workplace is almost darkly comedic from an outside perspective, but must be endlessly annoying to the victim.
So here we have ‘Screws’ - a free download mini-album from Frahm on Erased Tapes - played by the frustrated and damaged ‘9-finger Nils’. Vowing to record a song every night with his cast on, Frahm has produced a harmonious nine tracks of a delicate, sparse intensity.
His anger and sadness hasn’t complicated his music, it hasn’t increased the pace or added violence. In fact, it’s tempered his playing to a crawl, removed the bustle of his elastic playing and left holes for imagined notes, too painful to thumb. It’s a tremendously melancholic record, the most sensitive Frahm has produced to date. The magnanimous chamber echo of 2009’s The Bells and the subtle layering of 2011’s ‘Felt’ are reduced to whispers and small spaces. Each song is a simple piano piece, with any embellishments left to future work.
Fortunately, the despondent mood doesn’t translate as coldness. The pieces are sad for certain, but Frahm’s piano is rich and warm, the space close and the dynamics intimate. Hearing the room’s ambience and nuances of the movement as much as the playing are key to his sound, but ‘Screws’ has moved into a very personal territory, being an almost voyeuristic recording of a man playing at home in the evening. Frahm’s right hand shimmers more than sparkles and his bass clef provides a soft sonic bedding for his broken-digit laments.
Obviously the context has coloured my opinion, but I can’t say that I see that as a negative. Understanding its simplicity beforehand is rewarding for the listener. It’s a rounded, warm collection perfect for when the weather seems increasingly sharp and cold.
‘Screws’ is available as a free download, but you can pre-order a CD/Vinyl for December 3rd.
Review by Sam Hill