Keaton Henson is not okay. He is very, very upset and wants to tell you about it.
Birthdays, like the debut Dear, submerges the listener in a collection of songs interwoven with woe and neuroses. His sublimely crafted tales of frailty and passion demonstrate that his skill to induce the foetal position endures. Henson hasn’t rested on his laurels however, and this album plays out an interesting progression for the ever suffering artist.
Overwhelmingly apparent throughout the new tracks is his perpetual sadness, seemingly wretched and all encompassing. Henson’s fragile and candid vocals are the most compelling element of his music; he breaks and trembles, reducing the delivery to little more than a whisper at times. It feels as though he is trusting you with his deepest anxieties, as if it is a confession sprawled out only for you. At times achingly tender and others a little uncomfortable (“I’d kill just to watch as you’re sleeping”), the lyrics would verge on insane parody if they weren’t delivered so arrestingly. In this, Birthdays, like Henson’s previous recordings, is almost compulsive or voyeuristic, heightened by the rarity of such bracing honesty released into a public space.
The drum laden sound introduced to the later songs, especially on ‘Kronos’, marks a distinct departure for Henson. Sadness has developed into an uncharacteristic fully fledged anger, reaching a point where you maybe want to take a break; Birthdays is trying, intense, it’s cathartic. All the five stages of grief are covered in this album. It should be given out by the NHS as an alternative to therapy.
Henson’s music was never a soundtrack to sunblushed afternoons; Birthdays’ melancholia is constructed to be listened to alone, in times of wallowing and darkened tones. The infusion of multiple instruments and other voices make for an obvious progression of his sound but it’s perhaps more abrasive and makes for harder listening than Dear. The power of Henson’s music however is undeniable. He pulls you in, eloquently exorcises all and then just leaves again with the understated but articulate sound of a door closing behind him. Birthdays ain’t easy.
By Rosalind Hayes