By Gareth O’Malley
I’m not sure why it is – maybe I sympathise, or even identify with it – but I find myself drawn to the kind of intimate devastation that lies at the heart of Keaton Henson’s debut. My favourite album of all time is The Antlers’s Hospice, and one of my favourite debut albums from the last three years is Learning by Perfume Genius. All three of the aforementioned records are difficult to listen to, but what sets Henson’s album apart is that, while the heart-wrenching sadness of Peter Silberman (The Antlers) and Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) was covered up by lo-fi production, before they moved on to other things – the follow-ups to both of those albums were markedly different – the production values of Keaton Henson’s Dear… mean that every word leaves the reclusive singer-songwriter’s lips is clearly audible.
Keaton Henson does no press, would rather that he didn’t have to play live, and was prepared to never let anyone else hear these songs, originally recorded in his bedroom. He didn’t get his way, and that’s worked out very well indeed. ‘Get distracted by my music, think of nothing else but art / I’ll write my loneliness in poems if I can just think how to start,’ he says on “Small Hands”; and in two lines, Henson has summed up the essence of his debut. It is an intensely personal record: 10 songs which consist a solitary guitar, a quavering, soft singing voice, heartbreaking honesty, and little else. Embellishments are few and far between, only ever employed – as on “Not That You’d Even Notice” – when they will exacerbate the effects of Henson’s music; otherwise, they are completely unnecessary.
Lead single “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” seems most reminiscent of Mike Hadreas’s work; melodically straightforward, yet focusing on guitar and instead of piano, and absolutely drenched in self-reflection: ‘Do you know your lip shakes when you’re mad? / And do you notice when you’re sad? You don’t like to be touched, let alone kissed.’ There are moments when Henson explicitly refers to himself, as he does on the upsetting “Flesh and Bone”, a song which, more than any other on Dear… is excruciating to listen to, as the singer paints a picture of a life – and a body – falling apart: ‘My body’s weak, feel my lungs giving up on me / I’m worried it might just be something my soul needs.’
I very much doubt there will be anyone out there who’s able to listen to Dear… without having some sort of emotional reaction. It’s so intense and reflective that one gets the sense that Henson is well within his rights not to play it live, or at least not tour it until he feels ready; the unsettling “Party Song”, written from the perspective of someone who’s just gone through a messy break-up but has been invited to a party by his ex, who now has a new lover, is harrowing stuff. If he doesn’t feel comfortable with singing lines like, ‘I’m afraid I’d kill your lover while your back was turned … I see pictures now, of the two of you, and it makes me sick,’ on a stage, that’s all fine. His reclusive nature, and the depths of his inner turmoil, are made easier to understand by his debut album – but he has also created a truly beautiful listening experience, and should be applauded for that. In more ways than one, Dear… is astonishingly brave.
Keaton Henson (Facebook)
Reviewed by b3