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Review: Keaton Henson, 'Kindly Now'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Keaton Henson, <em>Kindly Now</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Keaton Henson, Kindly Now.

Keaton Henson can't help but make things. But, as he establishes throughout his new album Kindly Now, the English songwriter not only suffers for his art; he also seems to suffer because of it. In "The Pugilist," one of Kindly Now's many heartbreakers, Henson reveals the inner struggle he endures so that he can craft work that connects with others, and possibly last after he's gone. "So scared of death that I try to leave part of me here," he sings before chanting, "Don't forget me." Later, "Polyhymnia" imagines a violent battle between himself and his muse — and possibly a former love — with vivid lines like, "Polly, won't you bite off my tongue / Make me feel heartache like when I was young." It's difficult to funnel a lifetime of pain into songs with such plaintive honesty and resigned reflection.

As open as Henson is in his music, he remains incredibly private; he tours only sporadically, performing in churches, museums and intimate house shows. Still, even when he's retreated from the limelight, Henson has kept just as busy pursuing other endeavors. He's released albums composed of "bedroom classical" compositions and electronic music; he's staged an immersive DIY production of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and scored a film. Henson has also developed into a renowned visual artist, and just published a collection of poetry titled Idiot Verse. Now, Kindly Now represents a return to the stark chamber-pop balladry that defined 2013's gorgeous Birthdays.

Across Kindly Now's 12 bittersweet songs, Henson's distinct voice is the primary focus, as he adorns his quivering falsetto with little more than sparse piano or some chiming electric guitar. The palette is so restrained at times that songs like "No Witnesses" often sound as if Henson is writing them on the spot in some darkened hotel room, or in an empty old house where the sound bounces off the floorboards. When he does flesh out the arrangements, it's with a light touch to give his words orchestral weight at just the right moment — from swelling cellos and violins to the tactile, reedy hum of bass clarinet, to gospel-infused harmonies sung in a round cycle ("Holy Lover"). Henson's newfound emphasis on sonic exploration appears in the form of a few instrumental symphonic interludes, and in the transportive opener "March," a mood-altering overture composed of processed textures and chopped-up elements that surface in the music to come.

Henson runs himself through the emotional wringer again and again on Kindly Now, either by picking at the scabs of relationships frayed by restlessness and poisoned trust ("Comfortable Love," "Good Lust") or, in "How Could I Have Known," by pining over love he'd once had: "I shoulda said 'Stay with me' and 'Please don't leave me alone.'" His lyrics are most affecting when they depict specific personal details that could resonate with anyone. The moving "Old Lovers In Dressing Rooms" recounts a chance encounter with an ex after years apart, as well as the loaded conversation that follows. "I haven't many words to say, 'I've thought about you every day,'" Henson sings, adding, "and she seems disappointed when I say that I'm not happy yet."

In other hands, Kindly Now could have been a series of unrelentingly bleak and remorseful songs from a wounded soul. But another stirring highlight, "Alright," allows Henson to deliver an encouraging anthem of breathtaking beauty. An open letter to his past self, it acknowledges that while depression and heartbreak still haunt him, he has the capacity to keep going, change and let go. "You and I are monsters, will not find another / But cannot be together, lest we eat each other," he sings before adding, "Obviously my wounds are open to see / But don't take them seriously, I'll be fine." For Keaton Henson, creating seems to be both the cause and the result of his pain — but it's also his path toward healing.

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Mike Katzif