REVIEW: Lael Neale – Acquainted with Night

It’s only a week or so since I wrote an article about the songs that got me hooked on an artist, and here I am talking about a track that might one day feature on an updated list on the same subject. When our friends at Record Culture put out a Tweet about Lael Neale I thought I’d have a cursory listen.

‘Blue Vein’ was the first song I heard. It has so many of the ingredients I look for in a great folk song; strange and mysterious lyrics, a gorgeously plucked guitar, a voice that sounds familiar and comforting yet unique and haunting at the same time, and an all-round ethereal aura that I couldn’t help but be sucked in by. Like so much of the best folk music coming out today, it has a strong nod to the traditions but feels modern and forward looking too. It’s rare that hearing one song by an artist will have me preordering the record, but this one did. That’s how good ‘Blue Vein’ is.

Luckily, it wasn’t a one off. Acquainted With Night is littered with equally affecting moments, all of which meld together to make a fascinating and cohesive piece of work. But this album will not be for everyone. This is some of the most minimalist folk music I have heard in a long time, often relying only on Lael’s ghostly vocals and a single instrument – whether that be a guitar, piano, flute, or, on occasion, and omnichord.

There’s is a slight layer of distortion over the whole album – as if each song is being played live in the centre of a fog cloud. To some, this will seem like a production issue. But there is absolute no doubt that this was purposeful, and for those who connect with this particular brand of folk, it should add to the air of otherworldliness. The central tenet that holds the album together.

Songs like ‘How Far Is It to the Grave’ are central to that almost creepy feel, but despite the sometimes mournful focus this isn’t an entirely melancholy album. This song almost feels cheery in its melody. This combination of sombre lyrics with almost whimsical song construction is another key theme of the album, showing up in songs such as ‘Every Star Shivers In The Dark’, ‘Let Me Live By The Side of The Road’, and standout song ‘For No One For Now.’ This superb track focuses on a protagonist who talks about throwing her troubles aside and taking each day as it comes, but her story is littered with hints towards isolation and dissatisfaction. It is a troubling tale, but is told with a lightness and airiness that makes you never 100% sure of the meaning. This just makes it all the more intriguing.

And there probably isn’t a better word than that last one for this album. Intriguing. Beguiling, maybe. Drenched in distortion and feeling close and far away at the same time, Lael Neale’s songs suck you in and drag you along, never quite revealing their true nature but leaving you desperate to know what they are trying to tell you. They’re little pieces of mysterious wonder. As I mentioned above, not everybody will find them as welcoming as I did – I can see why certain listeners won’t get through a first couple of listens. But if you’re happy to be swept along by some minimalist mysteries, you won’t find a better album than Acquainted with Night.

Words by Fran Slater

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