Melancholy is a subtle mood. There are lots of songs I find uplifting and essentially happy, that other people think are morose, sad and a general downer. So, depending on which half of the glass you prefer to focus on, Winter Killing could go either way.
It begins abruptly—not “Decent Days And Nights” abruptly, but abruptly nonetheless: there's no intro (strictly, there are 1½ beats before Stina Nordenstam starts singing—hardly an intro) and the song arrives fully-formed.
The intimate electric guitar line (which acts as a bassline despite being much further up in the register) and percussive rhythm that form the song's backbone are present right from the start, as are Stina's vocals. Her vocals are distinctive: close-mic'ed, quiet and understated, with a breathiness and an accent that tend to knit the words together in a slur; her vocals are almost drawled.
When the chorus arrives for the first time, the accompaniment does little to acknowledge that this is actually the chorus; the few extra sparkles are subtle. It doesn't have to do much—the lyrics drop back and let the instruments take over, while still asserting themselves by their repetition.
The lyrics seem to speak warmly of togetherness: “you're safer with me here”. Then, after three of those affirmations and half a minute in that frame of mind, the punchline comes with a wry smile: “and you there”.
As understated as the chorus is, it's still a grooveable sing-, hum- and foot-tap-along, largely thanks to that percussive rhythm, which could easily be transplanted into an upbeat dance-pop tune. (In fact it's very reminiscent of the rhythm underpinning “5 Years” by Björk.)
The second verse retains most of the embellishments from the chorus, and has a bigger feel to it than the first verse. Conversely, though, it's only half as long before launching into another chorus. This second chorus is the song's fully-rounded “complete” sound that you'll be singing back to yourself next time you hear the first chorus—forgetting how restrained most of Winter Killing is.
As with much of the rest of the album, The World Is Saved (and “Parliament Square” is a particularly good example of this), it's the accompaniment's instrumental flourishes that really make the song—here a jazz-influenced, echo-y piano counter-melody most evident in the second chorus.
A modified, dampened third verse takes the place of a middle 8. When the chorus returns it too is subdued and adds a note of fragility: “I'm safer with me here”. The music does kick back in, but only fleetingly, and after the bulk of the words have passed.
Perhaps it's just the title, but Winter Killing does bring winter to my mind. Each piano note is a tiny white light peeking through the leaves of a tree; that percussive rhythm is the sound of snow cracking underfoot; the jangling bells are flurries of snow falling beneath a streetlight or, well, jangling bells. If there were a video for Winter Killing, Stina would be wearing a woolly hat and gloves, with her breath crystallising as she sings.
Throughout, it feels frosty and minimal—not in a white-cube zen–type way; more in that it sounds completely un-produced, or perhaps un-overproduced. There's no wall of sound, no pithy vocal effects and no overdubs. And there's certainly no big, celebratory, radio-friendly, stadium-rocking chorus repeat. In fact, there aren't even any backing vocals: perhaps that's what gives Winter Killing (and the rest of The World Is Saved) such an air of intimacy. There's nothing lacking, but equally nothing excessive. It's not laden with grandeur, pretension or ego.
It's as if she's taken the skeleton of a song and added individual notes, each glistening, until it's just beautiful enough. If you download one song this week, make it Winter Killing.
(How do you follow that? I'm still not really sure. It's the mood of “Hotel” by Broken Social Scene married to the rhythm of “5 Years” by Björk (plus a smattering of frost), so those two go well. “Leaving the City” by Róisín Murphy has lyrics that actually follow and make sense, and the style of Stina's vocals is even (sort-of) echoed in the breathiness of Róisín's. “Rewrite” by Sia also follows it nicely, as does “Waiting” by Cibelle.)