What began as the enigmatic audiovisual collaboration iamamiwhoami has morphed into Swedish solo artist Jonna Lee’s newest venture, ionnalee. Skewing toward a “raw,” more forthright intention, the main difference between the former and latter projects (aside from the slight change in name) is ionnalee’s exclusion of longtime partner and friend, producer Claes Björklund.
Ionnalee is an attempt at a singular artistic statement. And with her debut album Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten, Lee may just be on the right, albeit winding path to emotional resonance.
Despite Lee’s distinction between the “upfront” nature of her new project and the admittedly more ephemeral iamamiwhoami, Everyone retains all of the emphatic highs of her and Bjorklund’s best productions—like 2012’s “Play” and 2014’s “Hunting For Pearls.”
Yet while the past project framed her as a timeless character, Everyone sees Lee’s icy voice dipping excitedly into present consciousness. While at first it feels jarring to hear her refer to “self-love” and “bitches” on “Temple,” as soon as the chorus rushes in, the exultant release feels justified.
As soaring as the highs are, the depths of the snow-covered world Lee facilitates are just as exhilarating. “Work” is a standout among all of her productions, and an indication of her dancefloor prowess. Never has productivity been sexier than the slick, underground whip of Lee’s whisper over a militaristic beat. Then there’s the nearly subsonic dirge “Like Hell,” which drags and meanders before picking up speed and galloping off as Lee chants, “Carry my head with this mangled body/It hurts like hell.” She may be experimenting with directness, but that hasn’t diminished her canon sense of grandeur.
Among the most sorrowful moments (of which there are numerous) unfold midway through the album during “Dunes of Sand,” where featured artist Jamie Irrepressible sings with a trembling, otherworldly voice that all but forces melancholia on the listener.
The album runs 65 minutes long, favoring illustration over curtness. There are indeed moments of déjà vu that may turn off those unconvinced by Lee’s strike at cohesion. If you were to only listen to the first 30 seconds of each track, you’d be forgiven for dismissing the album as a repetitive setting of the mood. But in fact, it’s Lee’s commitment to flexing her vocal durability over each bulletproof chorus that distinguishes one vignette from another—and elevates some above the rest.
The same sinister earworms that run throughout iam’s debut album Kin dig deeper on Everyone, writhing and lingering in a more desolate space. This makes it all the more obvious when a song is lacking that same high-stakes energy and dark charm. The second half of the album is certainly less populated with bops, and is less succinct in its message—but it unearths Lee’s trance-tangential basslines as a result, driving her project home with an affect few other art pop heroines could muster.
On the penultimate “Harvest,” Lee allows for a festival-worthy dance break before reasserting on “Fold” what we’ve come to learn over the course of Everyone’s 15 tracks—“I’ll never stop wanting more.”
Last year, upon revealing a cancer scare and the possibility of losing her singing voice to thyroid disorder, Lee explained how she threw herself into the ionnalee project full-force. As evidenced by the title, Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten considers the lofty themes of legacy, the power of the icon, and social media with a wary eye, connecting back to Lee’s own feelings of isolation as a largely under-the-radar creator. Her disdain for societal expectations is also made apparent, which she challenges at every turn.
In fact, very little is off the table in terms of Everyone’s existential confrontations—a decision surely aligned with her intention of “allow(ing) for the listener’s personal meaning to coexist” along with Lee’s. Whether her audience immediately identifies with her ornate lyrics or not, her pop sensibility more than contributes its emotional heft.
The visuals corresponding to Everyone offer greater insight into the carefully cultivated habitat of Lee’s fantastical persona. In an interview with PopMatters, Lee iterates that although her new work may not sound profoundly different from iam, it’s at least coming squarely from her own perspective. “In my solo project, I take accountability for all my own mischiefs.”
It’s no surprise that the high fashion world has taken a liking to Lee’s iconoclastic confidence in her lyrical and visual aesthetic. The video for the album’s first single “Samaritan,” directed by Lee and John Strandh, follows our character as she’s bound and escorted through the snow, wearing a deep blue COMME des GARÇONS ensemble and crooning about her lack of religious belief.
The alliance between GARÇONS designer Rei Kawakubo and Lee is not altogether unprecedented, though it’s a crossover that’s bound to mostly satisfy fashion film nerds instead of amped-up festival-goers—the same analytical crowd that has championed Lee since her anonymous beginnings on YouTube. And while she is likely unconcerned with garnering the massive mainstream American audience enjoyed by some of her peers, popular DJs have long been relocating and looping her melodies to heighten their top 40 appeal, while retaining Lee’s indelible essence.
While not every song on Everyone lingers in its message, it’s hard to deny the passion with which Lee shares her rich epic, in each gorey detail. For those up to the journey—sit back, relax, pour yourself an ice-cold cocktail, and indulge in the temptation and ululation of ionnalee’s endless season.
Stream the project below: