At a time like now, it’s hard not to view every piece of new music through the prism of the pandemic. Sometimes that is pointedly the right prism through which to view it. With their respective works the ‘Quarantine’ EP, ‘Hearts Off The Latch’, and ‘The Singularity’, three Irish acts, Lazy Bones, Arrivalists and Maloijan, have alrady crafted cogent responses to our current predicament – a sort of artistic first draft of history. Then there is the work that couldn’t have been created with this specific viral event in mind but nonetheless speaks apparently explicitly to the moment.
Keeley Forsyth is an actor and artist from Oldham who released her first album Debris in January. The eight songs on Debris are raw and metallic and magnetic. Forsyth’s rich vibrato wide-ranging voice is surrounded by cello, guitar, piano, and electronics, and the music is mysterious and emotional. The imagery is allusive, sometimes repetitive. The entire lyric of ‘Large Oak’ is “Large oak / Descended”, which Forsyth repeats, keening, while her own voice provides a whispering comforting counterpoint, the three-word lyric carrying a mountain of emotional information like a worker ant lifting many times its own weight.
One of the most immediate songs on the record is ‘Look To Yourself’. It’s a song that goes route one lyrically, the narrative directness of which feels earned, given the abstract poetic quality of much of the rest of the writing; like ‘Everybody Hurts’ felt earned because it shared a record with ‘Find The River’ and was by the band behind ‘9-9’.
Forsyth sings “Look to yourself and you will see / Everything that there is to see / Look to yourself and you will know / Everything that there is to know”. She sings with incrementally increasing urgency as the song progresses. As I understand it, the song was originally addressed to her daughters and it works outside that context as an anthem to emotional self-efficacy; an act of encouragement to us to pay attention to and cultivate what is within us rather than avoid ourselves through perpetual distraction.
It’s a message that is always timely and pre-COVID seems prescient. You hear ‘Look To Yourself’ at a time that learned helplessness could easily hold sway, and you allow yourself to wonder whether you might have untapped wisdom and potential within you. ‘Look To Yourself’ imbues peace.
Then there is the glorious ‘It’s Raining’, which inevitably evokes Scott Walker but on which Forsyth’s voice sounds to me more like Odetta circa Dylan.
I passed over ‘It’s Raining’ a few times on early listens of Debris, impatiently en route to ‘Look To Yourself’ and the scintillating final song ‘Start Again’. My wife Sharon drew my attention to it and the COVID crisis added to it, offering further context. It is a troubled song that opens with imagery of distance and isolation: “My love I think it’s raining / I hear the tidal / Waving from afar / From an island / They call home”. Even the language of tides and islands is unsettling as it parallels the tsunami imagery widely applied to the pandemic in the near future. That opening “My love”, though, that steadies you.
There is uncertainty and a feeling of failure in ‘It’s Raining’; the lyric recalls Bill Callahan’s yearning ‘To Be Of Use’ when Forsyth sings “Should have been an umbrella / Or a bulletproof windscreen / Maybe something simple / Like a piece of gold / Never knowing its place”. But then it becomes about hunkering down. “The sea is trying / And it’s pushing you away / Hold on, fold in and pray”. Hunkering down to see out a storm, praying for better days: these are hopeful acts; the song says it is not stupid or blind or comical to work towards better than today.
I hope I’m hearing ‘It’s Raining’ right because if I am, what I’m hearing is an honest, aware, wary voice say, in April 2020, that hope and trust are valid; as we quieten to a hush, batten down the hatches, and hold our breath.