Catherine Ann Davies is many things: singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, PhD. The polymath behind the Anchoress creates a series of personas on this engaging, meticulously crafted album, using her versatile, smoky voice to plumb the depths of heartache and touch triumphant registers.
“Long Year” busts down the door with PJ Harvey-esque swagger, creating an echoing, layered soundscape that sets the stage for the world we are about to inhabit for the rest of the album. “What Goes Around” is a straight-up serving of piano-driven pop, but Davies’ throaty delivery elevates the song and makes it memorable. “Doesn’t Kill You” renders the old Nietzschean chestnut into an empowering, dreamy anthem, while “You and Only You” is an affecting, ‘80s-tinged duet with Paul Draper.
“One For Sorrow” comes on strong, an infectious dance track that advises against “taking words of advice from an old love song”, while “P.S. Fuck You” is a deliciously cathartic kiss-off ballad. Danceable and effervescent, “Popular” is an ironically poppy jam about going against the grain. The track features layered vocals that give the impression of buzzing conversations, an insouciant touch showing that Davies’ message is far from strident. Above all, the album is highly listenable, a feminist pill coated with cotton candy.
But just because Confessions makes use of airy dream pop production, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Davies’ sly, subversive lyrics provide a thoughtful through line, even as the music explores wildly divergent moods and soundscapes. “Bury Me”, for instance, romanticizes destructive love with a powerful, lush performance while asking us to examine our attitudes about “lips that bruise”.
“Intermission (Notes to the Editor)” is a piano interlude laced with echoing voices repeating the phrase “second-rate writer” before church bells come in and Davies unleashes a weary, authoritative howl on “Waiting to Breathe”, as if responding to that very criticism. “Chip on Your Shoulder” returns to the realm of guitar-driven pop, the lyrics and delivery a masterclass in sass.
“Confessions of a Romance Novelist” opens with the speaker saying “I always wear my mask when you’re with me”. The album itself is experienced as a series of masks, each revealing one distinct speaker. As Davies sings on the title track, “You don’t know me.” “Rivers of Ice” is soulful and full of nostalgia, closing the album with a stark piano melody.
The artist describes Confessions of a Romance Novelist as “deconstructing normative ideas of love and romance”, with each track spoken by a different character. That’s a lofty way to describe a series of love songs, but it’s fitting. The overall impression the album leaves in its gossamer and steel wake is one of fearless, feminine selfhood. The Anchoress creates a series of love narratives for her listeners to peruse, asking us to think critically about them rather than passively listening.