Describing an album to a potential listener is a risky business. Too often they will be turned off by the all-too familiar soundbites. ‘The new Ed Sheeran’ being one, perhaps. Or ‘the next Adele’. Perish the thought that musical artists should have their own identity.
A more meaningful approach is to describe the circumstances behind a new record, or its leading features. So when Isobel Anderson’s fourth album is described as being “inspired by the jagged coastline of Sussex,” the curiosity is immediately pricked. Anderson is a singer-songwriter with a refreshingly direct line of communication. That doesn’t mean she sings loud all the time, more that she has clearly thought deeply about how her vocals should be delivered. The production responds accordingly, making sure her thoughts are never clouded or obscured, and it is here that the Sussex coastline becomes clearer.
The voice on Chalk / Flint is an incredibly communicative instrument. That may sound an obvious thing to say, but it is rare to find a vocalist capable of varying her delivery to this extent without losing the feeling. The ambiguously titled _4284_ finds her probing the emotional depths. “This is my body, you don’t decide what’s inside,” she states in piercing tone. “You can try and shame me, but you forgot I’m alive.” As personal statements go it doesn’t get much more profound, and the accompanying violins are sweet but suitably descriptive. This and other songs from Chalk / Flint are very close to the bone. Feed Me finds Anderson in confessional mood. “I wanted to apologise, at how I left it last night,” she begins uncertainly, before asserting her position with a firm “just let me feed” delivered over swirling electronics.
The references to the Sussex coast are obvious in the cliff references of Chalky White, which gets some clever word play too, but on headphones the sonic picture reveals salty spray and windswept hair in the background. Through The Arcade is a nice piece of virtual reality too, a woozy walk conjuring up images of the old town of Hastings. The field recordings are used to good effect, but so are the strings and electronic trickery Anderson has at her disposal. The pizzicato violin on Flint Shingle is nicely pointed, the string writing in Motherchild is imaginative and rather gorgeous, while the weird, extending tendrils of a single string line brings a ghostly light to Watch You Leave, upping the intensity towards the end of the album.
So many records drop off at this point, but it is here that Chalk / Flint really comes into its own. The plaintive vocal of Terra Incognita would otherwise live long in the memory, but everything points towards the final song With You. ‘This is my last song’, delivers Anderson almost ominously, before asking her subject to “run with me into the sea”. The imagery is powerful, talking not just of goodbye but of a new beginning. “My home’s with you,” she finishes, as the dappled textures and distant seagulls retreat from view.
Despite the bare bones of its closing bars, Chalk / Flint has a hazy warmth that lingers with the listener. Anderson’s well chosen percussion and sonics are laid onto the vocals with subtle but meaningful brush strokes, the voice speaking with restrained yet remarkably powerful tones. Once the words have died away, the impression is one of inner strength – and it elevates Isobel Anderson as an artist of real substance.