Birthdays, the follow up to Keaton Henson’s debut album Dear, sees the West London musician tread the familiar territory of love and loss; however, where the subject matter remains similar, a new, studio polish has afforded greater depth to the music. After the successful release of Dear in 2012, much was made of Henson’s frequent panic attacks and unwillingness to perform onstage. The album had been recorded in his bedroom and the songs, sung in almost a whisper, were never intended for release. Since then, it seems, at least musically, that Henson is growing in confidence – a number of small venue concerts have been scheduled, and the increasing strength of his voice suggests a greater self-assurance. However, although such biography may offer us some insight into the motivation behind his work, it would be wrong to judge an artist on their life rather than their music.
The album opens with ‘Teach Me’, a solemn ballad to Henson’s own failures as a lover and a return to the sparse musical direction of Dear. Lyrically, however, where Dear was almost masochistic in his self-deprecation, ‘Teach Me’ offers a nuanced revision of this position. He asks mournfully for his lover to ‘teach me how to love you like I wrote’; art has replaced life – he appears almost lost in his own creations, unable to discern whether his songs are an expression of his love or a simulacrum hiding the emptiness of his emotions.
It is a crisis of identity that underpins these songs and one that Henson maps out spatially. In ‘10AM Gare Du Nord’ he declares: ‘You can leave me if you wish, my love. But I’m not going anywhere’. Henson occupies a position of stasis within the song; even in the dynamic environment of the train station, he is crippled by his inability move on. His physical restraint is a manifestation of his inability to progress beyond a perfect, but now past, love. This mental block is made explicit in ‘Lying to You’, when he addresses a current lover: ‘It may seem strange that I still stay with you, if it’s true you’re not really the one. And why do I just keep on looking for her? ‘Cause once I found her and now she is gone.’
There is certainly a profound melancholy to Henson’s work. In ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’, the principal track on Dear and the one that brought Henson to the public eye after it was featured by Zane Lowe in 2011, we do not so much hear anger in his voice as regret. It was this refusal to blame others that made Henson’s debut so endearing. Birthdays, for the first time, offers us some of the lover’s anger that was so conspicuously absent from Dear. In ‘Kronos’, where the heavier guitar distortion and percussion signals the change of tone, Henson sings: ‘This has been the best of me. I hope you end up missing me, and I’ll hold onto that’. However, even as he gestures towards a new direction the familiar self-consciousness takes over; as the music lulls back to whispered lyrics over an acoustic guitar, Henson berates himself: ‘You son of a bitch, stop writing songs like this. You think you’re better than them’. Though Henson shows flashes of this fire in songs such as ‘Don’t Swim’, he is arguably more engaging when he strips away the accessories and opens himself up to the vulnerabilities of unadorned accompaniment.
The song that captures the essential essence of this style is ‘Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us’. In this first music video in which the artist himself actually appears, we witness his vulnerability first hand; after singing directly into the camera for the opening of the song, he appears unable to continue and walks off, visibly overwhelmed by the experience. The camera continues to film – the somber absence of the artist is layered over with the tender lyrics of his disembodied voice.
In Birthdays, Henson continues to speak for the lonely and broken hearted; however, his unique take on that particular commonplace makes this album not only enchanting but also memorable. There is no doubt that Henson is a talented musician, but what is more apparent is his skill as a wordsmith. It would be wrong to suggests that his work is poetry, for their indebtedness to the music would make it hard for them to stand alone; however, he ranks amongst the most exciting lyricists working today, speaking with the sincerity of one who has truly loved and lost.
W. J. Humphries