Nine albums into a solo career that has rarely been anything other than thoroughly captivating, Kathryn Williams delivers a short, succinct and staggering record inspired by the work of Sylvia Plath. Initially responding to a commission for the Durham Book Festival’s celebration of the writer’s work in 2013, Williams found herself unable to escape the world of Plath’s sole novel, ‘The Bell Jar’, feeling compelled to give voice to events and characters she hadn’t touched on in the five songs she completed for the original literary event.
Having often been repurposed as a totem for teenage angst in recent years, the stark and cold tone of her sole novel ‘The Bell Jar’ was something of a shock upon re-reading. Plath’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, Esther Greenwood, became the central character for ‘Hypoxia’. While the record could easily stand tall without the need for any back-story, once such details are applied, it becomes a quite remarkable listen.
At just shy of thirty minutes, its length belies the considerable emotional heft of these nine songs. Williams’ capacity to get under the skin of her very particular subject matter is consistently striking. Plath captures Esther’s reflections on mortality and existence when attending the funeral of a school friend who has taken her own life rather beautifully: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” On ‘Beating Heart’, Williams uses that short second sentence as a delicate refrain in a lyric about contemplating suicide. When it is repeated, in muffled, drifting fashion, in the song’s final section, the lump in the throat is hard to shift.
There are moments when the mood swings, such as the ten seconds before the final chorus of ‘Cuckoo’, where malevolence, frustration and despair rise out of the more subtle hints delivered by the song’s unsettling piano chords. Written from the perspective of Esther’s mother, it is a staggering piece that possesses an affectingly conflicted ache. The final song to be written, and in collaboration with producer Ed Harcourt, it is one of the finest moments in this underrated artist’s wonderful songbook.
Despite this, the track on ‘Hypoxia’ that most resolutely leaves its mark is ‘Tango With Marco’, drawing on a disturbing chapter from ‘The Bell Jar’ where a night out dancing on a first date mutates into an attempted rape. Williams conjures an eerily detached musical backdrop for a lyric that is delivered with her customary clarity and precision. When the line “If I shout out in pain, you call it a good fuck” is left to linger just prior to the chorus, the sense of anger and contempt is palpable. By inhabiting and responding to a genuinely significant work of literature, Williams has produced her own spellbinding piece of art.