Haley Fohr has never shied away from difficult subject matter. Her last record under the Circuit des Yeux moniker was a stunning and bewildering rumination on her experience of a seismic brain-shifting event. The indistinct nature of that experience did little to dampen Reaching For Indigo’s potent and visionary achievements.
In the interim she released her second record under her alter-ego Jackie Lynn, which is deceptively often viewed as her more commercial outlet. And while Fohr regards that project as an experiment in pure entertainment, it’s one whose depth and idiosyncrasies belie such simplification. Through the conduit of an unconvicted felon and long-haul trucker she explores a raw kind of spiritual psychedelia that few straight-up pop records could lay claim to.
For her return to a project that she has described as her most spiritual and personal, Fohr once again plunges herself into a heavy topic; namely, grief. -io was written in the aftermath of the death of a close friend and partially in lockdown. Ordinarily used to collaboration, this solitary practice and grave inspiration might have resulted in Fohr creating a more insulated sound than her previous work. Yet opener Tonglen | In Vain is a dramatically auspicious start and as characteristically cinematic in scope as anything she has recorded.
Recent years have produced some fine records informed by grief; Sufjan Stevens‘ Carrie & Lowell, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree and Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me. They are all uniquely powerful reflections of loss. Yet Fohr’s latest record feels markedly unconventional in comparison. This is perhaps largely due to the lack of a predominantly mournful tone. Granted, there are countless moments here that are full of sorrow, but overall the record goes deeper to vigorously conjure the chaotic scenes of an inner mind trying to reconcile such pitiless finality. The resulting sound is huge.
Vanishing was released in advance of the record and its forceful rhythms make it a solid choice from which to dip one’s toes into the complexities of -io. The track’s funky pulse generates an unnerving contrast to the song’s bleaker undertones. Its percussive hooks pull you in before Fohr unveils a lyrical roll call of loss and a feverish throng of goodbyes: “Fading, falling melting, thinking, disappears.”
The album is full of suspense, largely because you can never second guess where she will take each composition. The Chase for example is a wonky vignette of whispered vocals that explodes into a vocally powerful piece before an abrupt conclusion. As ever, Fohr is playing masterfully with a listener’s senses and expectations, pulling the rug at a moment’s notice.
The lush grooves of Vanishing are in stark contrast to the icy desolation of Walking Towards Winter. The melodic beauty of this track is is lifted beyond is mere compositional notes with the aid of Fohr’s extraordinary voice. Much has been made of her four-octave range, but really it is as much the artistry in her execution that makes her vocal quite so exceptional.”You know there’s an avalanche that lives inside of me, and it’s ready to flow/ I’m breaking as your fingers fit in mine/ I’m changing as I try to hold the weight,” she sings on the track. Grief undoubtedly changes you, irreparably. Yet Fohr goes further than most to hint at the physical as well as the emotional aspects, and the duality of mind and matter.
Elsewhere, the choral and orchestral details of Sculpting The Exodus play with the conventional musical tropes of loss and their links to church music. Even so, at the song’s centre lies a more future facing, and subsequently more hopeful premise: “The signal goes in repeating.” It’s a theme that spills into Neutron Star and the infinite space beyond our humble home. Through an almost country lilt, followed by a waltz, Fohr takes the track into even more unexpected places and creates something quite out of time. And somehow, that limitless landscape offers a strange comfort.
As Circuit des Yeux, and in her other guises, Haley Fohr is always reaching for something far beyond what’s familiar and safe. With -io she has made a work that is both devastatingly personal and beautifully generous. Around the time of Reaching For Indigo’s release, she described that record as her magnum opus and no doubt it will remain a high water mark in a remarkable career. But -io is likely to sit by its side, in cosmic grandeur.