What does it sound like?:
It’s hard to encapsulate the album’s sound in a word, so I won’t try but it is woozy, claustrophobic, dreamlike and sparky – a real star turn by producer Ed Harcourt who also adds harmony vocals. The opening ‘Electric’ is slowly enveloped by a fuzzy warm embrace as Kathryn’s vocal slips into accepting ennui. ‘Mirrors’ crackles with synapse pulsing energy, Kathryn utilising her onstage vocal looping to great effect echoing Esther’s confusion and fear as her grip on her self starts to change. On repeat listens you hear new sounds and vocal inflections that pull you further into the eye of the storm.
The expressiveness of Kathryn’s voice has always been what drew me in to her work and on this record she really does emote the hell out of the material, the ‘ticking, ticking bomb’ of ‘Battleships’ giving the feeling of menace, fear and disgust in the book’s scene where Esther is cajoled into meeting her boyfriend, Buddy, by both their parents in an attempt to steer her onto the path to marriage and the accepted norm for a young women of the age. The imagining of this scene as a game of battleships with Esther trying to avoid the traps set for her and destroy any attempts to break down her resolve works really well.
‘Cuckoo’ beautifully condenses the feelings of many parents and relatives of people with mental illness – that others will look upon them as somehow responsible for their child’s illness and thereby they struggle to understand why or how this could come to pass. In the novel Esther’s mother, when Esther agrees to see a psychiatrist sighs in great relief – “I know my baby wasn’t like those awful dead people at that hospital. I knew you’d decide to be alright again”. Kathryn shows her inability to sympathise with her daughter, ‘My little girl’s gone mad / And who will they blame but me?’ with the echoed refrain ‘I couldn’t pick you out of a crowd’ demonstrating how the illness has taken Esther and the dream of a life she had for her daughter away.
As I said there are so many lines that just cut to the core of how mental illness effects us all. ‘When Nothing Meant Less’ is the track I keep coming back to again and again as it speaks to that dark part of me that I kept hidden for so long. ‘And when you thought that I was strong / I always knew that you were wrong’ she sings to her childhood friend reflecting on the journey both their lives have taken. The regret and despair of ‘And I don’t even know how your story ends / Cos you turned a corner and I stayed on the bend’ is just heart-breaking.
This isn’t a solemn or depressing listen by any means – melancholy, yes, but there’s nowt wrong with that – a key chapter in the book receives the angry and pointed ‘Tango With Marco’ as he is pinned to the wall with sharp lyrical blades ‘On the back of your eyes there’s a list / Of the different ways to hit – and kiss’ who sees women as ‘a coat draped on your arm / I’m a jar on your shelf/ Or a pig in the farm’. Whereas the waltzing ‘The Mind Is It’s Own Place’ brings comfort in our ability to survive life’s traumas and emerge hopefully stronger and wiser on the other side.
What does it all *mean*?
To get the most out of the album it may have helped if you have read the novel on which it is based but as I had already done so I can’t tell. It may have deeper significance if you have suffered periods of mental illness but again I can’t help you there. What I do know is that ‘Hypoxia’ speaks as strongly and assuredly as ‘The Bell Jar’ does about life’s expectations, troubles and the wondrous way in which the spirit endures despite it all.
Goes well with…
A long dark teatime o the soul or a cuppa and a slice of cake
Might suit people who like…
Introspection, thinking, wistfulness and staring into the middle distance