Listen closely to the end of Keaton Henson's 2013 album, Birthdays, and you'll hear the sound of a door clicking shut. Listen even closer to the start of 2016's Kindly Now, and you'll hear that same door reopening. In a six-year career in which Henson's work has been as diverse as it has been prolific, it is this small act of opening and closing the door, of letting the world in and shutting it out, which continues to form the struggle at the center of his art. More masterfully than ever before, Henson's third album builds upon the tension between stripped back, transparent confessional piano-ballads, and layered, experimental outbursts of mournful orchestration.
We are three years on from the gentle brutality of Birthdays, and Henson returns having sharpened tools and honed crafts which go far beyond the scope of that album. He has taught himself to play the piano and compose orchestral scores, as demonstrated in 2014's critically acclaimed evocative piano and cello project with Ren Ford, Romantic Works. This atmospheric, melancholic EP casts a shade over the stringed swells that loom in the shadows of Kindly Now.
This latest album is a true culmination of the skills Henson has developed over 36 months of diverse projects and exercises. Kindly Now sees the singer alternately pulled in two directions; he shifts between the traditional piano-led balladeering of Tom Waits and Randy Newman, and the experimental electronic sounds and tempestuous percussion that he has brought into his repertoire. The five piano-ballads that signal each progressive ‘act' of this album show the songwriter at his most stripped-back and unguarded; "No Witnesses" depicts the private moments of an artist alone in a hotel room after the crowds and the friends and the clothes have been removed.
And then, more loop-led experimental pieces like "Holy Lover" show Henson's ability to unsettle the listener by repeating and reiterating a phrase until it gains sinister new meanings. His lyrics are more anti-heroic and unabashed than ever as he sings lines like "I think I love you baby, please don't be afraid of me". This album is an artist laid bare, a discomforting confessional with no vanity or compulsion to self-mythologize.
Musically, Kindly Now is a textured piece of sophisticated and cohesive album-crafting in which Henson uses full orchestral arrangements to evoke motifs, themes and environments. The album moves between quiet, interior portraits and busy, unbalanced landscapes. For all its delicacy, the theme of violence and violation is central to this work – pugilism, gouged eyes, and lustful carnal desires lurk behind the verbal eloquence and ornate instrumentation of Kindly Now. The orchestra swells and ebbs in ways which antagonize as much as they support the singer in these songs – to listen to NW Overture in headphones is to feel the world close in on you from all angles before disappearing into the empty expanse from which Henson delivers the next song from the echoey expanse of an empty room.
Henson's first single from Kindly Now is an understated, melodic lament from the lover left behind: the minimalist, midnight whiskey-ballad "Alright," which recalls shades of Chet Baker at his most mournful and Tom Waits at his most vulnerable ("Don't make me go outside. God knows what, out there, lies."). "The Pugilist," meanwhile, declares "I still have art in me yet" – Henson is at once destructive and destroyed in this slow-building depiction of a self-serving love. As the solipsistic picking of guitar strings is submerged under orchestral swells and the echo of drums, the final plea of "Don't forget me" fights its way to the surface.
Kindly Now is the natural culmination of a six-year journey of broad and fearless experimentation into a range of genres and mediums. Every tool at Henson's disposal is unified and brought to use in this highly wrought and unflinching album which, when experienced as a whole, becomes greater than the sum of its parts.