Following the intimate Afterlight project, this self-titled 20th album carries all the hallmarks of a woman reborn
Thea Gilmore has been recording music for over 25 years now, but her 20th album, her first to be self-titled, feels like a bit of a reset. Her last album, 2021’s Afterlight – which wasn’t even released under her name, just as “Afterlight” – seemed to draw a line under her life up to then, best summed up as an affecting, sometimes bleak but ultimately hopeful account of a relationship mired in abusive coercive control.
Where Afterlight was fragile and intimate, the 2023 version of Thea Gilmore sounds like a woman reborn. She’s been experimenting with loop pedals, and the opening track on this record, Nice Normal Woman, may be a bit jarring to anyone who’s more used to her more folky style. Full of samples, spoken word vocals from Gilmore and fractured beats, it’s an arresting opener.
The rest of the album settles down into a more singer-songwriter vein, albeit one with a few curveballs thrown in along the way. It’s a solo album in the very purest sense of the word, with Gilmore playing all the instruments and producing the record herself – Bones is a stirring, mid-paced number looking back on her marriage and proclaiming that “there’s a fire still burning here”.
Gilmore has never been a singer who’s troubled the charts, which is strange given she well knows how to write a memorable hook. Ride On is one of the most memorable songs on the album, an inspiring ode to finding a supportive partner after a toxic relationship (“I’m amazed by what I got used to,” she muses at one point, one of the most poignant lines on the album). That’s Love Motherfucker would also have the potential to be a big radio hit, if it wasn’t for that sweary title – a strident, funny, rocky number driven on by a naggingly catchy guitar riff. One of the best tracks on the album has a tragic backstory: She Speaks In Colours has its origins in a project set up by BBC Radio 2, where five musicians were challenged to write a song about a listener’s life. Gilmore wrote about Delyth Raffell’s 16 year old daughter Ellen who died at just 16 after suffering an allergic reaction to crisps. Her portrait of a girl with “blue jeans, red hair and big dreams” is sad, affecting and a worthy tribute.
There are times when it can drag a bit – despite the loops and electronic experimentation, it can become one-paced, and tracks like The Next Time You Win can feel every second of its lengthy running time, and there is a tendency, such as downbeat piano ballad The Chance, for Gilmore to slip into formulaic pop-folk territory. Yet that’s balanced out by some impressive moments – Talking Out Of Tune builds up in dramatic, disorientating fashion, while Unravel Me slowly unfurls to become one of the best tracks on the album, full of memories about youthful carnal encounters in alleyways and how such experiences define your adult life: “I will lead you into temptation, I will be the heart you’d forsaken”. Gilmore’s whispered vocals contrast nicely with the increasingly fevered instrumentation to make this one of the album’s most memorable tracks.
It all adds up to another decent, solidly professional album from Gilmore, one that may not break her through to the mainstream, but nonetheless a cathartic labour of love which will not disappoint her long-term fans.