Release Date: September 16, 2016
Label: Play It Again Sam
Most reviews accompanying Keaton Henson’s recent album, Kindly Now, draw attention to his chronic anxiety and reclusive persona. And by my referencing those references, I’ve now done the same in my review. Damn it. That wasn’t my intention. Including those details in press releases and reviews positions the reader/listener to receive an album in a certain way. It conjures up an emotional authenticity, a “we’re all pulling for you” mindset that is hard to escape. They use this same trick on talent competition programs on television. “Wow–she was born without vocal chords! Isn’t it amazing that she can even write and sing songs at all?!?” Despite the initial effectiveness of this style of framing, I’m of the opinion that it can ultimately undercut reception of the given artist. Pity and empathy are great, but what do they actually tell us about the enduring quality of the artwork being analyzed?
The tendency toward providing superfluous context is especially problematic when the work can stand on its own. Kindly Now is a sweeping and thoughtfully conceived song cycle that needs no mythology behind it in order to make an impact. “Who is this mystery man?” the critics wonder. We have been given all that we need to know within the songs on the album itself.
Henson describes “March,” the first song on Kindly Now, as the album’s “overture”–composed of samples and loops from the songs making up the rest of the album. While it’s something of a stylistic divergence from what comes after, I am a fan of albums that recycle and revisit themes and content. “March” sets the stage and other interstitials like “NW Overture” (which appears right before “No Witnesses,” establishing its theme) and “Gabe” keep the notion of album-as-cohesive-work alive throughout the remainder of the record.
With the album’s first “proper” track, “Alright,” Henson begins detailing the fallout of a dissolving relationship: “I know the West was won this way, but God forgive the heartless way we let it all burn down.” Both parties are culpable in this recount, but Henson’s character seems to be taking it a bit harder than the other. By his own account, he’s “eating badly,” deserving of pity, and unable to cry. Lest the wallowing become unbearable, Henson turns the lens upon himself in a bit of self-deprecation: “Obviously my wounds are open to see, but don’t take them seriously.” This oscillation between extreme emotionalism and distanced perspective is a consistent lyrical tactic on Kindly Now. And the album is better for it. Unlike the traps of the empathetic positioning to be found in the the promotional materials, Henson’s lyrics generate empathy in a far more natural, organic way–by abandoning self-mythology and acknowledging the audience receiving his confessions.
The balancing act Henson’s lyrics perform in “Alright” is repeated in many of the following songs. The devastating, slow ballad, “No Witnesses,” which was reputedly written in a silent hotel room in Los Angeles:
“So I wrote down a list of all the things we’ve never spoken of and I wrote ‘Man, I hate Los Angeles. And I’ve never been in love.'”
This is a clever repetition of an earlier line in the song where Henson declares: “Those who hate Los Angeles have never been in love.” At its first appearance, the line sounds like an admonishment to a former lover–it comes across in one of those “how could you possibly hate L.A.?” ways. When repeated, Henson turns his logic upon himself and suffers its consequences.
Introspection and relationship-focused lyrics continue apace for the remainder of the album. Some are straightforward like the awkward encounter with an ex- in “Old Lovers in Dressing Rooms.” Others, like “Polyhymnia” take a more abstract approach–the muse of poetry standing-in as a multi-layered metaphor for the vicious-cycle of emotional trauma and artistic inspiration. Henson at once wishes to be free of the pain, but is afraid that once it is gone, so too will his songs depart. The level of personal detail, coupled with the desperation of some of the lyrics gives Kindly Now a claustrophobic feel.
The walls-closing-in sensation is enhanced by production choices. Close recording techniques allow listeners to hear the creaks of the piano bench, breaths and sighs before and after lyric passages, clicks of fingers on the keys. Add to that Henson’s quivering voice, which, struggling to hold back the emotion (or carefully rehearsed to produce that effect), further bolsters the empathetic connection. Exasperation, resignation, and even resilience creep through in these unspoken elements.
All of this might make it seem like Kindly Now would be an exhausting, emotionally draining listen. Maybe even overwrought. Some critics have said as much. But it’s my feeling that the subtler moments, along with Henson’s winking recognition that he’s dumping a lot on his listener, are enough to counteract emotional overload. Two parts pain to one part uplift. I think detractors might just be taken aback by how intensely personal it all is. It’s not something we often encounter in pop music. While every album is ultimately a vain exercise, it’s usually clothed in layers of abstraction or has had its rough edges polished in service of some label-approved notion of universality. We can’t be too personal, lest the song fail to connect. With Kindly Now, Henson has taken the opposite approach, but achieved the same (or greater) effect. He’s proven once again–like many of the greats who’ve come before–that the personal can be universal when the proper hand is on the tiller.