You don’t hear an album like this everyday.
For a start there’s the subject matter – the album is inspired by Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’, a distressing and gloomy account of one girls trauma’s back in the 1950’s. It’s not really something you’re going to turn up to 11 after a night down the pub.
This record needs to be treated with respect and care and, really, you need to sit down and listen to it. Now, if you are anything like me, then you will only have a passing acquaintance with Plath’s infamous novel on which the album is based but that shouldn’t worry you too much as it’s not really a requirement for your listening pleasure. It helps though to have some idea about the book but, for me, what the album does is conjure up an eerie half world where there are elements of spookiness in the air as we travel through these airy tunes. Perhaps the best example of this is ‘Cuckoo’ that is perhaps an invocation of the affair that Plath’s husband’s (the poet Ted Hughes) had with a friends wife. The chorus is an insistent chant of “cuckoo, cuckoo, I’ve got a cuckoo in my nest – it’s not what I deserve”. But then maybe it’s not about that at all!
Cukoo by Kathryn Williams
Most will be aware that Plath very deliberately committed suicide in 1963 aged only 30 by putting her head in the gas oven. Thinking about that leaves me wondering if the album’s title, ‘Hypoxia’ (death through lack of oxygen), helps to underline a certain grimness about Plath’s life. Perhaps it does and there is an undoubted river of a acute sadness running through the whole album. That spectral spookiness is at its height on two tracks ‘Tango with Marko’ that opens with a memorable opening line “On the back of your eyes there’s a list of the different ways to hit and then kiss” with the sparse instrumentation and Williams haunting voice underlining the mystery. Then there is ‘Mirror’s’ that opens with a weird voice sample and doomy bass and Kathryn’s soft voice with a fuzzed guitar hanging like a dark curtain over the frame of the song.
In ‘Part of Us’ we get another grim opening line when Williams sings “Well the last time I felt lonely the room was full of people/you don’t have to be alone, misunderstood” you can hear the sorrow in Williams saddened vocals and this maybe helps to translate some of what Plath might have felt during her most desperate times.
Likewise, ‘Battleships’ is a creepy song that contains the line “it stuck like sick in my throat” that conjures up a gruesome image for sure. There’s talk here of ghostly parents visiting and a desire to just disappear. Most of the songs contain such lyrics that pen a door into Plath’s tragic life.
Williams has talked about accepting the offer to make this album (from New Writing North in 2013) as a celebration of Plath’s work and she’s certainly managed to evoke a special kind of mystery here with haunting vocals, sparse instrumentation and obscure but poetic songs. Commenting on the inspiration behind the project she said “it was a surreal experience to share these songs that felt like little secrets”. The album is deftly produced by Ed Harcourt who also co-wrote ‘Cuckoo’ and he helps to create the spooky mystery that runs through the album. Its an achievement that Williams and Harcourt have delivered such a stark tribute to a prodigious but doomed talent. It’s even more of an achievement to have such a strong album that works without having to understand its genesis in the work of Sylvia Plath. Try and hear this haunting album – you’ll feel the magic.
Reviewer: Greg Johnson