Every artist handles success differently. Some embrace it like a potent new drug, living off a high that can last for years—even after the fame and money are long gone and the artist is only remembered on banal VH-1 specials. Others retreat from it, short circuiting their careers with endless obtuse albums and difficult performances until they get what they want, to be alone with no one watching.
And most fall somewhere in between, navigating new mine fields along the way as they try to keep the spark that made them a success in the first place. Thea Gilmore started her career as a kind of English Ani Difranco, issuing a slew of independent releases, beginning at age 17, and finding success six years later with 2003’s Avalance, which drove her into the British charts and onto a bigger stage—even to the venerable Top of the Pops.
Her change in musical status came at the same time as changes in her life struck, from family illness to separating from her partner. Following a diagnosis for clinical depression, Gilmore retreated, with all signs pointing to the second, “I’m happy with a fan base of just myself” result. Thankfully, Gilmore fought through these problems, writing and recording her latest, Harpo’s Ghost. The album feels like an exorcism, as Gilmore lets loose with plenty of anger, all tempered by her engaging songs and singing.
Though the personal tumult of her life makes up part of Harpo’s Ghost (“We could rise, but if we swan-dive, too / Oh I’ll love going down with you”, she coos on album opener “The Gambler”), political rage is the real engine of the album. A string of cuts during the first half of the album, with self-explanitory titles—“Everybody’s Numb”, “Red White and Black”, and “We Built a Monster”—and musical rage to match, are the prime examples. The last was co-written with Mike Scott. While he’s been incognito for quite a bit in recent years, Scott’s work with the Waterboys is some of the best music of the last 20 years, and he brings his top game to the table here. Powered by a incessant beat and driving guitar line, Gilmore compresses the madness of modern culture into a few choice words: “You don’t know the flood is coming until you are swimming in it”.
Gilmore moves back to the personal on the second half of the album, unleashing a string of songs that delve deep into the darkness that enveloped her life. Yet it never becomes overwhelming, in part because Gilmore’s skills as a songwriter keep the proceedings robust, and in part because there is enough light for us to see the end of the tunnel. “I was a scared little kid with a head full of hormones and holes / One eye on atonement and a body already grown old”, she sings on “Contessa”, with the confidence that she understands the troubles of the past.
The album closes with the moody “Slow Journey II”, a dirge-like ballad that would make Nick Drake proud. Yet Gilmore doesn’t leave us entirely on a down note. It’s followed by an untitled “hidden” track where the singer finds a final bit of sunshine in the simple act of playing—both in the childhood sense and in the musical one. It’s a fine way for Gilmore to end her “difficult” album, leaving us not just wanting more, but wondering what’s next.