This wonderful album from the Dutch singer-songwriter Jessica Sligter comes with a slightly unusual credit: “All songs arranged by Jessica Sligter with essential contributions from all participating musicians”. If at first this seems like an uncomfortable half-way house that stops short of giving her guest musicians full credits, it at least goes some way in acknowledging the rich ensemble sound that characterises this bold, authoritative album. It really does feel like a wealth of amassed, collective experience. Sligter certainly has the kind of qualities that might mark out a lone auteur (a penchant for the avant-garde, a powerful and distinctive singing voice), but she has taken a very different, less predictable route here.
Whilst the music on Fear And The Framing comes in an impressive variety of contexts and textures, from the peculiar, industrial soundscape of If That Was Crooked, This Is Straight to the ominous heartbeat of Fear, everything here shares an imposing character. Sligter has in the past been compared with avant-folk artists such as Josephine Foster, but for the most part the music here is more fleshed out and exploratory. Sligter enhances even the most seemingly stripped back moments with inventive, sometimes very odd vocal arrangements. The Perfect Vessel is particularly haunting and Everly, apropriately given the associations of its title, starts out as nostalgic 60s pop but then veers into a world of lingering minor chords and mysterious half-spoken memories. Sligter’s voice occasionally shares a freewheeling, wide-ranging quality with Mariam Wallentin of Wildbirds and Peacedrums, but it also has a striking, sometimes doom-laden sound that is highly personal.
Elsewhere, Sligter is unafraid to create stark moods, or to add fascinating colours and sonic effects. Scott Will Be Hierarch starts with menacing scraped strings. Its foundations are harmonically static, but are overlayed with all manner of frightening tensions and dissonances. When yet another horror movie heavily indebted to the Wicker Man emerges, it’s not too hard to envisage this appearing on the soundtrack, even though it sometimes becomes incongruously pretty. Man Who Scares Me arrives with added horn contributions that aid its meticulously crafted, disquieting mood. Perhaps the only false note is sounded by Pricklet which, whilst far from being terrible, feels a little out of place in its use of conventional rhythm and rock dynamics from the outset.
Sligter shares with the likes of Björk a penchant for disordered syntax and disarmingly honest statements. In Fuck etc, a song unlikely to receive much in the way of daytime radio airplay, she pronounces “I have not made love in a long time”. The first lines of the opening Man Who Scares Me are disorientating and perplexing (“You fine and foreign man/Your body’s wild/And startled me/Perhaps I’m a prude/I quiz my brazen effigy/But all is says is what I prompt”). Sligter succeeds in infusing moments that suggest theatre or cabaret without ever sounding mannered or overly-stylised. This is perhaps because beneath all the surface cleverness, there is a palpable honesty and conviction at work, not least on the gorgeous and tender Fall, Here, perhaps the perfect way in which to conclude a superb album.