When finding time between costume changes to accept her gong for best album at the recent BRIT Awards, Emeli Sandé voiced her emotions, saying “that so many people connected with this album and found strength in these words makes me feel incredible, and it doesn’t make me feel as lonely”.
Claiming music as therapy on a massive corporate ticket automatically sounds hollow – big, empty words for a big, empty space – especially when coming from an artist seemingly on a one woman mission to redefine ubiquity. Yet Keaton Henson definitely would’ve got the message, despite being as far removed from the BRIT ethos as possible.
While the trucks of Bollinger were being unloaded to prep the O2 Arena, the 24-year-old solipsistic singer, songwriter and visual artist from Richmond-upon-Thames was playing to a handful of people at the capital’s Freud Museum. That in itself was a minor miracle – hounded by anxiety, he routinely shuns social media and almost all press, only tentatively returning to performance recently. He pulled out of his first ever gig, succumbing to his fears before even stepping on stage. Sallow skinned, hidden behind a prodigious beard and prone to blunt expressions of emotion – once confessing mid-gig that he’d rather be at home, where a mountain of yellowing cigarette butts is accumulating on an outside windowsill – he embodies the notion of the troubled songwriter.
Those beguiled by Henson’s first album, the musty, mostly acoustic and home-recorded Dear… will find plenty to admire in Birthdays, a reassuringly wracked follow up chock full of pathos. It sees a distinctive artist finding his voice and expanding his reach, with a careful sheen and flecks of new instrumentation courtesy of producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Shins and The Strokes). Henson even remarkably spent two sunny months in LA for the sessions, but the climate clearly did little for his preoccupations; the record is desolate and wounded as he pores over loss and love and loss again. As he reaches out for meaning and connection it often slips away.
Most songs now spring from reverberating and gossamer electric guitar figures. Sweetheart What Have You Done To Us voices bitter, childish recriminations with stately brass, and 10am Gare Du Nord underlines the two way vulnerabilities of entering a relationship, washes of ghostly backing vocals from Jesca Hoop propping up Henson’s gauche voice. Yet from spare means comes a curiously distinctive atmosphere, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine indifference to it: those in the Barry from High Fidelity camp will gripe about “sad bastard music” from someone who just needs to cheer up, yet just as many will be fascinated. What sets him apart from the slew of bedroom troubadours though is that Henson is a genuine lost soul, a rare proponent of the unusually stark vulnerabilia that has marked out Daniel Johnston as a cult hero for the past three decades.
Just as Johnston became fixated on his muse Laurie at a young age, Henson was shattered by the sudden crumbling of his first relationship, writing countless songs in its wake, saying recently that “a lot of art is trying to make someone love you. Doing a little dance for one particular person.” It makes denouement in Lying To You, a song that twists the old, unedifying adage of “it’s not you, it’s me” to instead underscore its writer’s absolute helplessness, breathtaking in its unique candour. He runs the gamut of relationships, from the callow youth daydreaming a relationship with an attractive stranger on The Best Today, to the outright bewildered, struggling for an adequate adjective to describe his infatuation on You amid a flourish of beautiful strings which climb and roll. At times the sorrow is exquisite.
That Henson is spared Johnston’s other well documented demons make his naive, crystalline observations even more raw, inspiring the fascination with the lost soul which lies at root of his appeal as it does with, say, Nick Drake. Tellingly though, he shows himself capable of kicking against the tide – Don’t Swim sees him remonstrating with a lover before the delicate guitar figure suddenly cracks, his wheezing voice ushering in a muscular wall of distorted guitars. Identikit rock in less capable hands, it retains a spectral presence in the squall, the anger subsiding back to its spare beginnings.
Birthdays is often a harrowing and troubling listen, relentless and redolent of its own agony. This makes it asphyxiating rather than cathartic – an often spectacular document of pain, no doubt, but it remains a record to admire rather than invest in, turning you away with its bleakness when it promises comfort. The real pity lies in the fact that Henson knows it, as he sings on Teach Me “How am I expected to behave when I’m alone with myself every day?”