The Acoustic Stage. Glastonbury. With her usual diffident charm, Kate Walsh explains that her last record was a bit depressing and apologetically informs the crowd that she hasn’t cheered up much. She introduces a number of songs from her new album, Light & Dark, and a tent of exhausted, mud-caked festival-goers that had previously been happy to mumble their way through each act falls completely silent.
It’s not like she’s making a whole load of noise herself. But there’s something about her songs and her gentle, unassuming sound that quietly enthralls. Three songs in and the tent’s occupants are collectively looking inward or backward, at tactless endings or failed beginnings. Kate Walsh is unashamedly morose, there’s no real denying that; but Light & Dark, as its title half-suggests, isn’t quite the universally cheerless thing one might expect.
It’s worth admitting that the album doesn’t exactly venture into ABBA-like permagrin-and-covered-in-sequins territory with much regularity either. No album containing lyrics as bracingly raw as the title track’s “And I left you for another man / and he doesn’t deserve me / I know this inside / but he holds my heart / between the light and the dark / and I / I wish it was you” could ever be described as uplifting. But there are specks of light to go with the plumes of dark reflection, as though Walsh thought it better to choke back the tears on occasion, instead of succumbing to overly indulgent bouts of self-pity.
Two things help Kate Walsh to move her sound on from her debut album’s more formulaic girl-and-her-guitar folkiness. Her first album, Tim’s House, was, of course, an Internet revelation; and due to the fact that Walsh secured a major record deal after her album hit iTunes, Light & Dark is the recipient of a much heftier budget. Although it isn’t an album of extravagance, Light & Dark is far more extravagant than Tim’s House. The second notable difference is the recruitment of Olly Knights from Turin Brakes. Knight’s nasal, woody timbres and harmonies are a welcome addition, adding colour to Walsh’s delicate trill.
Album opener As He Pleases’ xylophone clinks and myriad strings – both staccato and melancholic – buttress Walsh’s meandering flights of girl-meets-boy-girl-loses-boy whimsy and point to an album with far less restriction. June Last Year’s meowing lap steel guitar puts it in bluegrass territory, along with the humid Nashville drift of Seafarer, as if Walsh were moving closer to the warmer ballads of Alison Krauss and further away from the bereft folk of Joni Mitchell.
If anything, the album’s added instrumentation and increased sense of ambition has the effect of leaving Walsh feeling a little further away. Yes, she’s still visible; but she’s behind the tinted glass of the recording studio as opposed to the other side of the sofa, as was the case with Tim’s House.
Ultimately, Walsh is better when she sits beside the listener and quietly confides. The album’s finest two moments sit side-by-side like broken lovers with a thousand words to say to each other and absolutely no inclination to say them. Greatest Love, again with the help of Knights, pours its emotion through strings and words: “I closed the door behind me / and just looked the other way / but you don’t know how hard / you don’t know how hard it is.”
The title track’s sorrow lies in the frankness of its disclosure, like a drunken throwaway comment that shouldn’t be heard when sober. It is both an illustration of Walsh’s fragility – both vocal and personal – and her remarkable ability to somehow sing through such painful reflection.
Light & Dark loses its way a little from here on in. Although Walsh’s sound possesses greater depth, it’s her songcraft that lets her down, as the album struggles to recover from the impact left by its earlier highlights. Too many of the later songs, some of which drift out of the folk territory and into pop, meander without any purpose, falling short of the easy exuberance of say, a Regina Spektor or a Rufus Wainwright. Happily, the sparsely-arranged Gather My Strength closes Light & Dark in much the same way as it starts: quietly, delicately and beautifully.
For all Light & Dark’s greater ambition, this is a 10-track album that carries the unnecessary weight of at least two weaker songs. But there’s something about Kate Walsh. She is such a romantic mess that it is hard not to quietly fall for her in some way.