It’s hard to say what’s the bigger accomplishment Anna Calvi achieves with her sophomore effort One Breath, that she takes the next step to a place alongside reigning art-rock drama queens like PJ Harvey and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark or that she recalls their work without ever obscuring her own distinctive vision as an artist. While working with long-time PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis on her 2011 self-titled debut and St. Vincent producer John Congleton this time out would confirm her affinities to her peer group, Calvi has become strong enough of a performer in her own right not to be eclipsed or smothered by such associations. One reason for that might be that the late blooming Calvi has methodically built her career and sound, studying guitar and violin in college and only starting to sing in her mid-20s, when she decided to train herself to get past her fear of singing. It’s almost as if Calvi’s ascension reverses the process that most other performers go through in finding their voices, as someone with musical chops who was just waiting for the right material to give expression to, which is what happens on One Breath.
In that sense, what’s so striking about One Breath is how Calvi is able to push forward her artistic ambitions and raise the raw, dramatic tenor of her music without having to sacrifice one for the other. So while her self-titled debut was a proficient piece of work, One Breath feels like a more substantial effort both in terms of Calvi’s more developed musical imagination as well as the visceral, unmediated feelings she evokes on it. In particular, Calvi is particularly adept at getting across multiple, even competing tones and sentiments at once, covering everything from piercing blues introspection to tender orchestral flights of fancy, while projecting burning vulnerability and steely strength at the same time—and that’s just on the opening track “Suddenly”. There, what begins with ominous, Rid of Me-like thrumming segues to a graceful crescendo, as the gritty immediacy of Calvi’s internal monologue lifts with a relieved sense of release. The play with contrasts in texture and mood is even more pronounced on “Piece by Piece” and yields more thrilling returns, as the booming percussion and St. Vincent-esque guitar freak-outs betray fits of desire that belie the keep-it-cool demeanor of Calvi’s melodic coo.
Indeed, One Breath is a testament to Calvi’s stylistic versatility, ranging from fast-twitch rompers to slow-burning torch songs, and touching on what’s in between too. The album’s first single “Eliza” is upbeat and dynamic enough to be her adult-alternative star turn, but it’s the way Calvi keeps pushing the pace with a heightened pitch of yearning in her vocals and frenetic guitar soloing that makes it more than that, while the hot-and-bothered “Love of My Life” starts out desperate and only gets more so as she begs as much as she demands. Yet Calvi can slow the pace and quiet things down, and still register the same impact, like on “Sing to Me”, which glows with ember-like intensity as its slow fuse sets off a swooping, minor-key string passage that gets dramatic without getting too maudlin. Instead, she saves up all the melodrama for the edge-of-your-seat hush of the title track, where Calvi quietly pleads “I’ve got one / One second to live / Before I say what I’ve got to say / Before I breathe / It’s going to change everything,” as woozy, butterflies-in-your-stomach effects and plucked bass notes beat like an anxious heart. When everything does change, “One Breath” comes through to the other side by breaking through Calvi’s dammed up feelings with a sweeping string arrangement that’s cathartic no matter how things turn out.
An album as varied in tone as this one is can be difficult to hold together, but it’s Calvi’s ability to keep you waiting for the next twists and turns on One Breath that gives it a sense of continuity. “Cry”, especially, is about working with tension rather than always seeking an outlet from it, as Calvi plays off a tight two-note riff against her most dramatic croon on One Breath. Yet “Cry” only ratchets up a sense of nervous anticipation every time you’re supposed to have a chance to catch your breath, as spasmodic avant guitar freak-outs up the ante like Calvi’s letting loose without being able to completely let go. And yet as dramatic as things get on One Breath, the effort as a whole has an organic sense of development to it, with all the unanticipated elements ultimately fitting together into the larger scheme of things. That’s noticeably apparent on One Breath‘s most ambitious track “Carry Me Over”, which starts as a mid-tempo ballad and scales its way up to a symphonic panorama with the scope and sweep of Florence + the Machine, just with its atmospherics shaded more darkly.
So perhaps One Breath ends with bit of a comedown on its final few tracks, but that feeling is only relative compared to the high level of engagement the album as a whole draws you into. If anything, it just goes to show that it’s the element of surprise that not only makes One Breath a consistently captivating listen, but Anna Calvi a compelling artist.