What if the sentiment "I love you" was no different than "I have an itch"? Would life have meaning?
Everyone knows that life is just a great big mystery. Our experiences help shape and guide our understanding, but often we remain confused. Sometimes, music can help give expression to these inchoate thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves and the world. Kathryn Williams' latest release, The Quickening, deals directly with these existential questions. She offers enchanting iterations of these concerns, but Williams is as much in the dark as the rest of us. And in the dark, she dreams.
Consider the beautiful, raga-like "Just a Feeling", where the British lass gently asks, "What if love is just a feeling"? She obscures the terror of the koan’s wisdom by singing in a lilting voice to a gentle acoustic accompaniment, but what if -- what if love were no different and no more special than any other sensation? What if the sentiment "I love you" was no different than "I have an itch"? Would life have meaning? The effect is made more chilling by Williams' deadpan delivery.
If this sounds kind of highbrow, you are right. Williams' lyrics could stand as the type of poetry found in today's university and literary journals. She follows the template of offering short, pithy stanzas that do not necessarily tie together, but end with a witty and compelling statement that makes it seem as if the associations add up to more than what they are. Williams' musicality makes her better than these versifiers, though. She pens songs whose stanzas become verses and choruses. Her meters become rhythms and beats. Williams' songs have hooks, haunting melodies, sparkling sound effects, and odd electronic atmospherics. The music is presented in a meticulously clear folk-rock style.
Sometimes Williams gets deliberately coy and obfuscates, such as on the jazzy "Cream of the Crop", where she trumpets the values of a material life with a sneer that suggests she wants to have her cake and eat it to. Yes, money and the things it buys can be superficial pleasures, but, boy, a fancy restaurant date can be so nice. And a good-looking beau with romantic style to share it with is hard to resist. She can also be somewhat obvious, with lines like, "Holding you is like holding smoke". But for the most part, Williams’ instincts are good.
She is best when she keeps thing simple, such as in the 83-second "Black Oil", where she wonders how some flowers just seem to glow at sunset and then mourns "the birds were head to toe in black oil" the next moment. She recorded this before the oil spill in the Gulf, but the metaphor works as fanciful as well as factual. Williams looks at modern life and is confused. Nature is still out there, but the world of people is just as real a fact of life. Everywhere you look there is something to observe that makes you pause and reflect, even if it’s just the "white lines" on the highway, "a city as big and wide as a mountain range", and "missing Polaroids in the family album". Contemplation always follows observation, even if you only see what is missing.
The Quickening is Williams eighth album and recorded in Wales. The twelve songs were taped live over a four-day period, yet the music never seems rushed. She manages to capture the urgency of the existential moment without the anxiety of not knowing what it all means. Life may be but a dream, but that’s okay.