Limbs begins so quietly you have to check it’s playing. You may even fall into the trap of turning the volume up extra loud to make sure you’ve not missed it. I say trap, but listening loud does ‘Fires’ a big favour. Almost straight away it’s clear that on Limbs, Keeley’s second album, there is a big step up vocally and lyrically, in instrumentation and in production.
I first became aware of Keeley’s music, as many others did, with the ‘wow’ moment hearing single ‘Start Again’ for the first time a couple of years ago. Limbs doesn’t have a song with the same ‘wow’ moment, and is instead more consistent in quality throughout, peppering the tracks with many smaller wows.
For someone who turned to music following an earlier acting career, it’s clear she’s really taking it seriously now. Not that she wasn’t before. But as I say this album is a big step up without being over the top. It builds on her established sound and elevates it to new levels of brilliance.
Keeley doesn’t do long albums. Debris, her first, had just eight tracks, as does Limbs. Only this time they’re packed into a terse 26 minutes. Yet these aren’t songs as we know them. They’re more like a series of short pieces of performance art with synths, strings, piano, harmonium, and only hints of a beat. Take the album’s title track as an example – I’m not expert enough to even begin to describe how some of these sounds are made, but they way they are layered for dynamic effect is masterful. Coupled with the aesthetic of the artwork and videos, these tiny pieces of art make up a cohesive whole. I’ve not seen her live and it’s got me wondering if she will stay ‘in character’, as it were, throughout the gig, or whether she would let us glimpse the ‘real’ Keeley with a crack of a smile.
The whole experience is dramatic, as you might expect from a former actor, and even disconcerting. Keeley, in her musician character, presents a haunted figure. From the industrial ghosts of ‘Wash’ to the insidious and ominously slow clockwork of ‘Silence’. She uses her vocals to great effect here too: vibrato in the higher register, throaty whispered notes two octaves below and spoken passages: ‘I advance in all directions / skin becomes divorced from air’. It’s like a creeping frost, chilling you before a gust of wind hits, exacerbates, and then gently recedes. We’ve been conditioned by how music is used in films to expect a shock in moments like this. But this is no horror, and the effect achieved is far more unsettling. I can’t think of another artist making music this way and achieving something similar.
Despite the short running time of Limbs, there is room for warmth and immediacy here too. ‘I Stand Alone’, for example, brings to mind the sentimental melodies of early Elbow. It feels less experimental than Debris, more focused and purposeful as if there was an album in mind this time around rather than simply a collection of songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Debris too, but Limbs is a class apart.
Keeley’s brand of haunted bleakness won’t be for everyone, but I love it, probably in spite of myself. And I’m so pleased she’s made another cracker of an album.
Words by James Spearing