I love those moments when you hear a song for the very first time and know instantly that it will become one of your absolute favourites. Not just ears pricking up at a neat bit of melody, but full-blown ‘I must hear that again instantly’ mania. I’ve always liked Kathryn Williams‘ music – most of it is sitting in the racks behind me as I write this – but I’ll confess that I clicked on the link to what was to be the teaser for this album expecting something nice. Williams possesses a genuinely beautiful voice and has recorded some great stuff across her previous nine studio albums, but I’d never felt compelled to run around telling everyone about her. Until now. ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ is a track that deserves to be heard and, inevitably thereafter, loved. The swooping strings, gentle propulsion of the drums, ornate guitar plucking and utterly flawless vocal combine to form something euphorically great. When the backdrop falls away for the middle eight, Williams sings “all the fishes in the sea; I cast my net, you chose me.” This gentle twist on the time worn cliche, where the speaker is both the chooser and the chosen, is one of many delicately brilliant moments across this magnificent album.
The frequent but not oppressive use of strings has nods to The Beatles, Nick Drake and, most delightfully, the sonic palette of ‘Sea Change’ by Beck. Such augmentation can so often be used as a dreary shortcut for emotional heft, but here the strings seem to ache and swoon like backing vocalists, an essential part of the songs and their impact. The spaciously lavish ‘Sequins’ sweeps and ripples around, appearing to offer release and optimism. It strikes a triumphant note of “winning the years” but listen closely and it appears to be coming from the perspective of someone in a coma. The concluding lines “when I finally die, put sequins on my eyes” will move the initial joy to a curiously consuming sympathy.
The weary resignation of ‘Monday Morning’ takes a well-worn trope and manages to capture the gentle futility of wishing the days away and wondering what difference it all makes anyway. The naggingly hummable chorus gives way to a middle eight of da-da-da-da-da-da-da-ing that offers velvety respite from the humdrum horrors of the working week. Another moment of emotional connection comes with a slight wail near the end of ‘Darkness Light’. The lyric in the chorus “sometimes there are shadows that I have to fight, you can make the darkness bright,” is delivered several times, each repetition of the word ‘shadows’ getting slightly more feverish until its final appearance seems to rise out of the line and attack the shadows for their hold on people. It’s a stunning song, which seems hopeful, resilient but bearing the scars of the fight. It is one of three here crafted in conjunction with Ed Harcourt, who also lends his voice to ‘Morning Twilight’.
‘Picture Book’ opens in blunt fashion which will floor you, Williams’ voice seeming to be summoned deep from within as she quietly, slowly intones “I’ve heard people say they like me and then laugh when I fail.” The mood soon lifts as the songs goes on to explore what people are really like below the way they project themselves, the picture book coming to represent the person within. The reflections on humanity and how we deal with our challenges that run throughout this album make it such an easy collection to keep returning to, always something else to pick up on or identify with.
It continues to baffle me that this record wasn’t shouted about from all corners, receiving minimal coverage and barely registering in any of the end of year lists. Quite how magazines like Mojo and Uncut aren’t raving about what is, perhaps, the most classicist pop album of 2013, I’ll never know. Williams herself has spoken in several interviews about how she feels this is her best record, despite doubting her own releases in the past. And rightly so, as this is a collection of songs spared of filler, lacking a weak link and one which given a different set of circumstances would be selling several million copies.