Anyone who went to art college will know the importance of a sketchbook. Those first exploratory marks on paper are about as raw as creativity gets, and they often possess an immediacy and spontaneity that the final, finished version lacks. The same is true of songwriting – that first surge of creativity, recorded quickly and often with little care for production values, can be a fascinating glimpse into the creative process. As the piece develops, it gets finessed, but that can mean that the quirks and idiosyncrasies that gave it an initial edge, get airbrushed out. On Hunted, Anna Calvi has gone back to the demo recordings made for her 2018 album Hunter and has reworked them, but this time with the input of Courtney Barnett, Joe Talbot (from Idles), Charlotte Gainsbourg and Julia Holter. Calvi had spotted characteristics in those raw recordings which she wanted to bring to the forefront, but this approach seems to result in her making the same album twice.
On Hunted, Calvi plays her best card early. The opening track, “Swimming Pool” is gorgeous. Over a simple, but beautifully played guitar figure, Calvi, joined on this song by Julia Holter, creates an almost new-age soundscape, which holds your attention from the first note to the last. Calvi and Holter’s voices mesh perfectly together, and there is a raw starkness to the song, which is incredibly compelling. It sets the bar very high for the rest of the record. “Hunter” is one the tracks on this album which features Calvi, alone. A backdrop of synths and guitar, emphasize the darkness of the lyric, while her heavy breathing, used as a rhythm track adds to the unsettling mood of the piece.
From here on in, it’s diminishing returns, unfortunately. The guest vocalists come and go, but their performances seem almost grafted on to the recordings for no real reason. Aside from Holter’s ethereal contribution to the opening track, no one else has brought their “A” game. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s contribution to “Eden” does very little to enhance the song, the same of which could be said for Joe Talbot’s vocal on “Wish”. Courtney Barnett fares better on “Don’t Beat the Girl out of My Boy”, and her distinctive vocal adds an audible sneer to the piece. It helps that that song was a standout track on Hunter, and compared to some of the other work on this record, it’s almost a conventional pop structure.
Why has Calvi chosen this rather eccentric approach for her new album? Possibly, she’s feeling the pressure of following Hunter and has put this out as a placeholder. Were the guest vocalists brought in to entice people to pick up Hunted, who possibly wouldn’t have bought it if it had just been a collection of her demos? I genuinely think not, but for the most part, those cameos add little or nothing to the pieces and take away from the raw immediacy of the recordings that to which they have been added. This record falls between being a snapshot of a work in progress and a fully-fledged recording and as such, is curiously unsatisfying. A “warts and all” approach really should have been the way to go. “Indies or Paradise”, the last track on Hunted, is all Calvi, her voice soaring as she brutally attacks her guitar, invoking PJ Harvey at the peak of her powers. More of this, please.
Hunted occupies a strange place in her catalogue, being neither an audio-verité release or a fully-fledged, star-studded duets album. It’s quite interesting, but that’s all. Now, with this out of her system, she can move on.