You never quite know what you’re going to get when members of successful bands strike out on their own. Will they be using it as a chance to explore creative avenues closed off to them in their day job? Or will they just be serving up a watered-down version of the music their band puts out, lacking the spark that comes from rubbing up against the other band members? I love Jehnny Beth’s work with Savages, all righteous fire and moody post-punk angles. So it was with interest that I put her first solo record on.
From the beginning of album opener ‘I am’, it is apparent that the album has a foot in both camps. Lyrically, the record treads a similar path to her work in Savages. Musically, it is a different story. ‘I am’ opens with the sounds of a ticking clock, seagulls, disorientating strings and a pitch-shifted voice. Synths join the cacophony, before all of the music cuts out. It’s replaced by a simple piano line, slowly increasing in intensity and accompanied by rising strings and drums. The pitch-shifted voice is replaced by an undisguised one, raw and open, but more fragile than it has sounded before. Clearly this is not a simple case of Savages Mark 2.
The stylistic shift and experimental sonic palette on offer in the opening track are representative of the restlessness of the album as a whole. ‘Innocence’ begins with a sparse industrial drumbeat, before breaking down into jazzy, piano-led chorus as Beth asks “Is it living in the city // that turned my heart so cold?”.
‘How could you?’, on the other hand, is an aggressive, pummelling, fast-paced track with guest appearances from Idles. Oddly enough it reminded of the digital hardcore racket of Atari Teenage Riot.
Elsewhere the tracks are arresting in their simplicity – just beautiful, unadorned voice and piano. Here, with nothing in the way of production or instrumentation to hide behind, the quality of the songwriting really shines through.
It would be unfair to describe this as an album without an identity, though. Within the sonic variety and experimentation on display, there is a core blend of drums, piano and electronics that appear throughout and hold the record together. What is impressive is how she varies this contribution so skillfully throughout, finding new avenues without sounding like she is changing things up just for the sake of it. This could have come across as the work of an easily bored mind, incapable of setting on anything. Instead it hangs together as a cohesive whole.
Not all of the experimentation is wholly successful – some of the tracks failed to leave much of an impression. But that is the nature of records like this that experiment and take risks. Overall, they are more than compensated for by the moments when that experimentation pays dividends. Beth even gets away with a spoken word track – the classic sign that a musician is making a serious artistic statement! Cillian Murphy joins her on ‘A Place Above’. Normally I find these offerings hard work. They bring with them too much baggage, to many memories of substandard open mic poetry nights. But here it works. For one thing, Murphy’s voice is captivating, almost an instrument in its own right. The words he is given, raw and honest, yet still poetic, are also spellbinding.
The lyrics are a major strength throughout. The same fearlessness and willingness to address topics too personal or taboo for some that made Savages such an exciting prospect is on display here. Many of the songs address place the personal in the social sphere, exploring female desire through society’s hypocritical attitude towards it, or using personal horror to rail against the destructive urges hardwired into our civilisation and its power structures. The stark lyrics sometimes match the uncompromising music; elsewhere they stand out in contrast to its beauty. Both approaches lend weight to their impact.
There will be those who are left cold by this record and for who the dreaded ‘p word’ – pretentious – will be inescapable. For the rest of us, there is much to admire here. Once, if, the world gets back to a place where gigs are happening again, I would love to see these songs live. I am fascinated to experience how they play out in a live setting. Here’s hoping!
Words by Will Collins