A short but fiercely concentrated album with an immense cumulative impact, this is an essential listen
With her first album Debris, Keeley Forsyth surprised a lot of people. Though there is nothing particularly unusual in an actor revealing a simultaneous musical project, the surprise lay in the sheer intensity and physicality of her songs.
Unfortunately for Forsyth, the arrival of the pandemic meant she missed out on many opportunities to perform the songs live. She quickly regrouped, tapping into the same rich pool of creativity that made her debut such a compelling listen.
The two albums are inextricably linked, Limbs picking up the baton from where the final track on Debris, Start Again, leaves off. “There is a place that only I have seen,” sings Forsyth over the fateful tolling of a single note. “Let me begin again”. Given in the lower range of her voice, these words are the chink of light from which the hope on Limbs gradually takes hold. “I advance in all directions…gravitation becomes apparent,” says the title track with increasing confidence. The advance is checked, however, spring stopped momentarily in its tracks. “The frost catches, and I am adrift”.
These lyrical parallels with our attempts to get back to normal life in the face of the pandemic are striking. They also reflect Forsyth’s own struggles with restoring her creativity. By documenting her trials, she strips back to a basic, elemental approach. Air, water and fire – the very tools of living – are all prominent in her mind and music.
The lyrical profile of Blindfolded bears this out on paper, with single word stanzas including ‘earth’, ‘water’, ‘blood’, ‘fire’, ‘skin’ and ‘bone’ – but more ominously, ‘wolves’ and finally ‘black crow’. This is bare bones writing that demands and receives the strongest vocal communication, Forsyth placing complete trust in the listener as she confides the opening lines of the song in a whisper.
At the other end of the scale is the operatic grandeur brought to Limbs’ broad melodic phrases. Her tones prompt vocal comparisons with Anohni, Hayden Thorpe, even Nina Simone in the richest timbres of the sonorous low range. Perhaps the most instructive musical comparison, however, is the later work of Scott Walker, for these songs have an upright poise in the face of hardship, looking their listener straight in the eye. Besides these comparisons, it bears repeating that Forsyth has an instrument like no other, the effortless control of her vibrato making it the ultimate expressive instrument.
Her brave approach lays everything on the line. The rich contralto on Wash is punctuated by imaginative scoring, somehow maintaining a confidential tone in the company of percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, whose soft chimes offer solace.
The accompaniment on Limbs is striking throughout. Matthew Bourne is this time paired with Ross Downes to bring the songs closer to the listener’s ear, simultaneously presenting a bigger picture of the world beyond. Land Animal brings the outside in with spacious textures, its expansive piano punctuating the vocal to paint a picture of emerging from hibernation.
The best is saved for last in the form of I Stand Alone, delivered by Forsyth with the resilience of a single figure standing firm in a blizzard. The accompaniment now has orchestral dimensions and wide open, consonant harmonies, and although she doesn’t sing in the song’s closing paragraph Forsyth’s presence remains, lost in thought.
This is a short but fiercely concentrated album, a set of songs notable for their primal power. Its cumulative impact is immense, the singer giving everything she has to the music. Limbs may not be an easy listen, but Keeley Forsyth makes it an essential one, singing from the depths of her very bones.