Album Reviews

Marika Hackman – Big Sigh

(Chrysalis) UK release date: 12 January 2024

A liberating experience that’s nothing if not cathartic, her songwriting can address difficult issues and still manage to make them sound positive and hopeful

Marika Hackman - Big Sigh In the five years since her breakthrough album Any Human Friend, songs have not been coming easily to Marika Hackman. That’s perhaps understandable, the predecessor to Big Sigh was an unashamed and blunt break up album that addressed a deluge of emotional turmoil, and the experience of lockdown meant that she struggled to access the spark of creativity that had always hitherto been present. In terms of inspiration, those are pretty harsh starting points and not the kind of headspace you’d want to occupy too often.

Thankfully, the spark has returned, and the result is an album that hits hard and stays swimming around your subconscious. Big Sigh not only possesses a host of brilliantly written, earworm songs, it also manages to resonate on an emotional level that is far more engaged than anything she’s done before.

It’s enlightening that perhaps the most immediate song on Big Sigh is also one of the most difficult to listen to. No Caffeine starts with a repetitive piano motif, and then starts ramp up the tension with a propulsive bassline. Hook laden it might be, but that it depicts ways to cope whilst in the midst of a panic attack points to where Hackman’s head was at during the creation of the album as a whole. “Occupy your mind, don’t stay home, talk to all your friends but don’t look at your phone,” she advises, before finding herself screaming into a bag and trying to turn her brain off. The song positive itches with tension and discomfort.

Hanging, the first song that Hackman wrote for the album occupies a similar uncomfortable space. Once again, she finds herself addressing faltering relationships, this time against an almost pastoral soundscape. The majority of the song is delicate and gentle, an almost beautiful soundscape. Lyrically, however, Hackman addresses her subject matter with a visceral, almost medical approach; it’s like listening to David Cronenberg attempt a ballad. She’s constantly struggling to breathe during the song, she heads home to intubate after speaking to her partner, she’s constantly struggling for air, during the song. She’s held underwater, suffocating, holding her breath, she’s got her partner’s fingers down her throat. Elsewhere on the album, there are mentions of embryos, afterbirth, cracking bones, disease and wounds; life and love is red in tooth and claw in Big Sigh’s world.

Yet despite all frankly disturbing imagery, Big Sigh comes across as a liberating experience. It’s nothing if not cathartic. The title song veers between gentle guitar lines and a delicate croon, to an explosive chorus. Hackman’s use of dynamics across the album is impressive. Constantly moving between silence and chaos, it feels like an audio encapsulation of her life experience. Slime starts out as a delicate ballad, that apparently tracks the feelings of falling in love. In Hackman’s hands, this process sounds as terrifying as it is magical. Filled with trepidation and ideas that border on violence (“stranger, I wanna re-arrange you, climb your spine and shake your mind”) it still manages to soar with sense of unhinged abandon.

Hackman follows this with Please Don’t Be So Kind, a far calmer, but much darker rumination on the idea of love. Within the slow undulations of the song, she states that she’s not fine, only to be mocked for her honesty. Hearts are ripped out and lies are exposed, this is the darker side of relationships laid bare.

The experience of Big Sigh is not unlike the weird euphoria that comes after uncontrollable sobbing. It feels like coming through the other side. This might sound like hard work, but in Hackman’s hands, dark and troubling scenarios are anything but. It’s testament to the sheer brilliance of her songwriting that can address difficult issues and still manage to make them sound positive and hopeful.

buy Marika Hackman MP3s or CDs
Spotify Marika Hackman on Spotify

More on Marika Hackman
Marika Hackman – Big Sigh
Marika Hackman – Covers
Marika Hackman – Any Human Friend
Marika Hackman – I’m Not Your Man
Marika Hackman @ Bush Hall, London