headshot of the musician Elena Setién
Elena Setién Credit: Pablo Axpe

Basque singer and multi-instrumentalist Elena Setién began working on her latest English-language recording, Unfamiliar Minds, just as the first wave of COVID shut down Europe down. She uses both sound and language to get its pandemic-times message across: the echoing piano chords on the opening song, “2020,” evoke the numbness wrought by accumulating uncertainty, while the progressively shorter lines in its lyrics convey a sense of sickening deceleration. On “Situation” and “Such a Drag,” human bonds erode and television proves a weak replacement.

But Setién doesn’t stay mired in dysphoria. On the Laurie Anderson-like recitation “New,” a dissociative state gives way to a calm and hopeful regard for the natural world, as though a tide is turning. A pair of settings for poems by celebrated shut-in Emily Dickinson more decisively split the darkness: Setién’s playful singing on “In This Short Life” injects levity into the poem’s articulation of powerlessness, and “I Dwell in Possibility” radiates faith in creative potential. Through most of the album, Setién accompanies her voice with keyboards and violin. But she switches to guitar for the title track, obtaining a dissonance that suits its words: they give equal weight to the COVID era’s enduring trauma and to the hope that people will in some way pass through it changed for the better.

Elena Setién’s Unfamiliar Minds is available through Bandcamp.