With her blazing red hair, alabaster skin, and shaved eyebrows, Karen Elson was a remarkable presence in glossy ads and fashion spreads throughout the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Stating that a model’s looks are “unconventional” to the fashion industry norm, however, usually provokes a few eye rolls. Unconventional or no, even left of center models still meet otherworldly height and weight requirements. Although Elson’s debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, should be taken without Elson’s previous career hindering judgments, the fashion world analogy is an appropriate one. Elson’s album, like her look, is arresting, but genre conventions are very strictly in place.
Elson is gifted though, and this is apparent from her mournfully captivating delivery on the album’s title track. Although in subject matter—a girl’s ghost recounts a stab wound that both broke and silenced her heart—it comes across as a response by all the girls who have ever been murdered by the pen of Nick Cave, the song’s outstanding beauty compensates for its risks of appearing derivative.
Wise enough to not concern herself solely with murder ballads, Elson dabbles, albeit safely, in a number of styles throughout The Ghost Who Walks. Her time spent collaborating with the poli-cabaret outfit the Citizens Band is evident on “100 Years From Now”. Originally penned for the troupe, Elson’s delivery, now gentle yet lofty, again rescues the song from being a photocopy. “Lunasa”, which was written by Citizens Band member Rachelle Garniez, and “Cruel Summer” are spare folk songs that would be just at home on a release by any number of artists who find everlasting inspiration in traditional folk ballads, catwalk skills or no.
As evidenced by titles and subjects throughout the album, Elson has exhausted her copy of Harry Smith’s definitive Anthology of American Folk Music compilation. Songs on The Ghost Who Walks come with titles like “The Birds They Circle” and “Garden”, and concern nature, either as being deceptive beneath its peaceful exterior, or, on “Stolen Roses”, as a haven. This latter song is another suggestive of Nick Cave, particularly his duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, a song which appears to be referenced directly in the lyrics to the penultimate tune on Ghost, “A Thief At My Door”. If the reference was intentionally made, it’s a peculiar but suitable move for Elson to make. It has been argued that Minogue allowed herself to be murdered by Cave in song form to appear edgier. While Elson is not—or so it seems—aiming for edge here, she is vying to be taken as more than a statuesque looker. Who really wants to be known for hot pants or hair color forever? As Elson sings on Ghost‘s second track, “the truth is in the dirt on the ground / not in your gilded cage…”. In the end, these traits are rendered futile by death.
Even when the gloss has been wiped away, Elson remains worth as balladeer remains, as does her maturity and elegance as a singer. Elegance and maturity are welcome attributes, they also risk tempering something down to the realm of safeness. In the end, The Ghost Who Walks, for all its prettiness and grace, can be best described with an un-model-like term: average.