For some artists, the COVID-19 pandemic was a godsend, allowing them to thrive without the distractions of the outside world. But for Marika Hackman, the lockdown had the opposite effect. “I have pretty bad anxiety,” she explains in the press materials for her new album, Big Sigh. “It’s usually manageable, but having a lack of control for two years during the pandemic was impossible.” She released a covers album in late 2020, but she could not come up with any new songs until 2021, when she composed “Hanging” just before meeting friends at a pub when restrictions had been lifted. “I realized I’d done it,” she said. “I’d put the first crack in the ice,” referring to her likening the creative process to hacking into a block of ice.
“Hanging” is one of ten great songs on Big Sigh, which Hackman co-produced with Sam Petts-Davies [Thom Yorke, Warpaint] and long-term collaborator Charlie Andrew (Alt-J). It’s her first record of new, original material since Any Human Friend was released in 2019. While it contains some of the same elements of that release and previous works, Hackman approached Big Sigh differently. Eschewing the idea of a full band, she plays all the instruments herself, with the exception of the brass and strings. This resulted in a slightly more introspective, downbeat vibe.
Take the opening track, “The Ground”, which ushers in the feel of an orchestral, minimalist overture. Hackman repeats the song’s two lines – “Gold is on the ground / I was happy for a while” – almost like a mantra, with the vocals taking on a distorted, doctored sound reminiscent of Thom Yorke. “The Lonely House” is simply Marika Hackman playing a brief instrumental piece on piano. These stylistic departures aren’t jarring as they manage to fit into the overall scope of the album, which has an eclectic but coherent feel.
“No Caffeine” is a wistful single, with Hackman dispensing simple, valuable life advice: “Occupy your mind / Talk to all your friends / But don’t look at your phone / Scream into a bag / Try to turn your brain off.” A funky, sophisticated backbeat over understated string arrangements underscores the affirmation that Big Sigh is a mighty return to form.
But while Marika Hackman is quick to embrace orchestrations and occasionally idiosyncratic styles, there’s always room for a more stripped-down, direct approach, as the gorgeous, folky album closer “The Yellow Mile” displays, featuring only vocals and acoustic guitar. The song’s intimacy brings to mind some of Elliott Smith‘s best work. “Blood” is also based in a largely acoustic setting but brings orchestrations and other instruments in at crucial moments.
It’s hard to pinpoint the highlights of Big Sigh as it’s filled with inspired songwriting paired up with unique execution. “Vitamins” incorporates slow, twitchy beats and an almost glacial pace, with Hackman’s weirdly deadpan lyrics (“If I eat my vitamins / I could be up in a hall of fame / But if we’re all special then we’re all the same”) succumbing to a rich, textured synth coda that rises out of nowhere. On a more down-to-earth level, the title track is a revelation, with ringing guitars and a thick sonic atmosphere bringing to mind a smarter, more layered approach to Britpop.
Marika Hackman has referred to Big Sigh as the most challenging record she’s ever made. This may be because she was pulling herself out of a frightening creative rut. It’s good that she kept picking away at that block of ice, as it resulted in what might be her finest album to date.