The Art Of Losing (Kscope)
Good grief? No, I don’t think you could ever argue for that.
The crushing grimness of watching your mother slide into dementia day by day; the death of a child; the loss of a parent or partner; the slow withering of a great love. Whatever it is, “good” it never will be.
But finding a way through or even past that grief. Navigating the stages of that process. Building your resources of mind and body. Hell, just surviving. There can be good in that, surely. There can be stories and lessons and memories. There can be great music in that.
For yes, The Art Of Losing is suffused with grief. Sometimes tortured by it. Twin losses – a father and a child – are at the centre of it, but are not the whole of it. There’s sexual and emotional abuse. There’s doubt and the manipulation of that doubt professionally and personally. And telling lines such as “It’s dangerous to place your worth/In measuring how much it hurts”.
But it’s presented in music that lifts and separates itself from any kind of pain porn by being, firstly, a pleasure just to hear and respond to on a visceral level, and then, a living example of getting through or even past that grief. Finding a purpose for it.
I’m not talking about contrasting the brutal truth of the words with sunshine tunes and light touches though; that’s not what Catherine Anne Davies, aka The Anchoress, aka the writer, multi-instrumentalist, singer and producer, does. The Art Of Losing is as intense musically as it is lyrically.
It’s sometimes an ache that spreads its reach (the slow building of strings behind deceptively calm vocals in Let It Hurt) or an interlude that hovers between gentle and disorienting (the blend of piano and voices-off that are All Shall Be Well and Paris). It might be the brooding thought that pulls back and releases, contains and lets go again (the cascading vigour of My Confessor) or a Sunday morning-style devastation that deceives by gentleness (the elegant vocal layers of 5am, even as Davies sings “It’s 5am/And she’s dripping down my thighs/Red red blood is dripping on the carpet … and I can’t sleep/I can’t speak”).
Sometimes it’s a focused energy that is equal parts anger and dismissal (stabbing synths and grand gesture guitar chords in Show Your Face) or sweeping interaction of recrimination and unforgiving forgiveness (the guitar power drama of The Exchange, sung with James Dean Bradfield) with blunt force trauma like “So now it seems you can’t equate/The penalty with the mistake you’ve made/You’re not to blame/Another part of the exchange/You’re just some pawn to interchange again”.
Along the way, her voice seems to be promising a vaulting glamour, a shuddering grandeur even, but that’s both too easy and too reductive for Davies. The contained force is all the more effective for always being a notch below where you expect it to peak. It’s almost as if the control is in defiance of us, or of those who thought they had her measure when they cut into her.
She’ll decide how much and how far she’ll go, just as she’ll decide if not how much to feel then at least how much to show. “We need to fall/For if we did not fall/We should not know/How weak and wretched we are of ourselves.”
Control extends to the landscape she works in. Davies’ songs range from grand rock that might bring to mind a Welsh (or Scottish) group or three, and some of the quiet roiling of the Eurythmics at their darker end, to echoes of Kate Bush at her late ‘80s peak of expansive vision/condensed emotions and something older and plainer.
It’s done with less of the flamboyance which marked her often fabulous, belatedly released collaboration with Bernard Butler, last year’s In Memory Of My Feelings, but there is no question that it has a grander perspective than most albums you’ll hear this year.
And that can be put down to how Davies’ own certainty of vision is evident in the depth of the sound and the clarity of its palette. Yes, production often is at its best when you don’t think to notice, and that’s true here, but when you do stop to notice you understand that she’s made an album that calls for immersion but never overwhelms.
Which is saying something when there is a lot at play here. A lot.
The first words heard from Davies on The Art Of Losing – after the first of two essentially instrumental tracks which bookend the record, Moon Rise (Prelude) and Moon (An End) – are “ouch, this is going to hurt”. And yes, it will: there are hurts here that feel so real as to be my own, and I can’t stop playing 5am even though it destroys me every time.
But that’s only a beginning, a prompt to go further, as she also sings “Stop bargaining with yourself and let it hurt some”. It will also raise and charge you, fill and push you, inspire and answer you.