No, really, this is her happy face.
That Batflowers arrives, and in the main leaves, with its exuberance trimmed and its perspective lowered to somewhere short of the horizon, might suggest the long break since the last time Megan Washington released an album has been – as the tabloids like to say – troubled.
Sure, this doesn’t have the thick, not even disguised, personal trauma of 2011’s Insomnia, that quietly stunning interregnum of an EP that even on its release she was declaring too much to bear, and certainly too much to play live. But nor does it try for the grandeur of 2014’s second album, There There, whose widescreen production and aspirations to pop history made it feel almost overflowing with life at times.
The tenor of Washington’s third album is perhaps best described as contained: rarely does she let her voice loose, and on some songs she turns away, murmuring; the tempos are at most hit a brisk walk, but mostly stay in and shut the window on the outside world; the sounds can ripple and glisten, can mix in shots of treated drums and untreated pianos, or solid state lower notes and perky keyboards, but they always seem calm and respectful, brooding rather than braying.
And many of the songs turn on the missed moment and the lost touch, or the making do because that’s better than not at all; of seeing a propensity for going too far but not resisting it, or too far having already passed and too late is looming.
There’s talk of remembering “the sound of the music in my head” but acknowledging that “I get it confused with what you said”; the woman stealing seconds from a relationship where “I know you won’t leave her” but staying anyway, even as she sighs that “love is a give that takes”; and another one recognising her weakest point, her “Achilles heart”, has taken yet more arrows but declaring “It’d be easy for me to hate you but I just feel sad”.
It won’t surprise you by now that even though it was made not just in another world from, but in complete ignorance of the existence of Taylor Swift’s folklore, that clinging atmosphere of a record, that winter’s grey made compelling disc, seems the closest thing to a comparison for Batflowers.
However, even in its most fatalistic shades, even when she sings “I pull the thread and it’s all coming loose”, this is a record which offers the very opposite of defeat. There is instead a nagging trust in the ability to love again, or at least be open to the possibility, and more importantly, a belief that you can survive.
Maybe even that we can all survive. (Because the crises here are not just personal but overlaid with your basic existential ones: really, how can you make art in the Anthropocene and not have that infiltrate everything?)
The ‘80s keyboard beds and almost robotic verses of Dark Parts make that clear as Washington says I’ve seen worse so don’t be scared to bare all to me: “Come on, show me all your icky blacky yucky … show me all your shadowy and terrible,” she sings, offering to do the same, because “I can’t make enough of you/I can’t fake enough for you”.
Within the bitter truths of The Give (“You got another lover but she sure ain’t me/She’d go crazy, throw toys/It’s not the same rules for girls and boys”) is a classic girl group song rolling in the low thunder, with shivers of delight at transgression matched by the certainty of inner strength.
There’s another echo of those teen dramas, albeit through an R&B lens, in Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die, where a cooing choir of voices reach for the transcendent, an oddball collection of found sounds counter with earthier shapes, and in between Washington declares she doesn’t want perfection tomorrow, she just wants action now.
But the album’s strongest messages of survival come in its most exposed moments of full surrender, its two most compelling ballads - which not coincidentally turn out to be some of its best moments.
In the growing intoxicating swirl, a kind of neo Jean-Michel Jarre, of Lazarus Drug, there’s a stately procession, as if towards the altar, over which Washington feels at her freest vocally. Her voice, like the lyrics, alternates between admitting helplessness and claiming what is hers, between “When I hear you calling/Like you were always there/I rise until I’m hanging/In the middle of the air” and “When I hear you calling/I split like I’m a snake/With golden light like fingers”.
The result isn’t giving in but taking in: “I am nothingness, but shining/And everywhere at once/I’m everything and everyone that is or ever was”.
This kind of cosmic uplift at first seems beyond Catherine Wheel, which emerges as if from the exhaustion of devastation, the Rufus Wainwright fan in Washington playing out in a piano-and-voice combination that almost convinces you it is trembling and then assures you it is holding firm.
“The champagne tastes a lot like blood/And I do not know how I’m going to heal,” she says. But maybe healing isn’t the point. Not because it can’t happen but because it doesn’t matter; it was the experience that counts for now. “I know how fire works but I still/Let you kiss me like a Catherine Wheel.”
A version of this review was published originally in The Guardian.