ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Intelligent alternative electro-pop that explores ideas and situations surrounding grief.
There’s a Rothko print that usually (currently needs rehanging) takes pride of place on the chimney breast wall of our living room. It was a present from my little sister twenty-years plus ago who at the time knew I was interested in Rothko because of the ‘Mute icons are the only kind of beauty we find acceptable today’ quote on my Everything Must Go era Manic Street Preachers T-Shirt. The T shirt came before I knew who Rothko was. The Manics were as important to me as any band in the 1990s. My greatest ever gig was their set at Glastonbury 1994. I’ve never witnessed anything more rock and roll than Richey Edwards silhouetted on the stage that night.
What mattered about the Manics is the way they showed that a DIY punk ethos was not only about three chords or a look, it could be extended to an education. By insisting that rock and roll should be rooted in ideas, they gave permission for suburban, Woolworths budget kids like me to read and think wider than we ever would have otherwise. Libraries gave us power.
Catherine Anne Davies, recording as The Anchoress, carries the same inspiration from the Manics into her new album The Art Of Losing. Written and recorded before Covid, this collection of songs explores the visceral grief and suffering that Davies experienced through bereavement, miscarriage and cervical cancer. It is a deeply personal, handmade album; reflected by Davies playing most of the instruments and producing it in her own studio. However, it is also an album of ideas that places personal experience in conversation with a diverse group of thinkers such as Julian of Norwich, Carson McCullers and Elizabeth Bishop.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ inspired the album’s title and the artwork. The artwork is a stunning ambiguous image where The Anchoress is either inhaling or vomiting a book. This image captures something of Bishop’s insistence that loss requires you to ‘Write it!’ However, the deployment of an alter-ego in The Anchoress allows Davies to contextualise that personal grief does not happen in a vacuum but in conversation with wider society. Bishop says that ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ but The Anchoress sings ‘Got a lot to learn about the art of losing. As with the Manics, The Anchoress equips her audience to do the work for themselves. This helps the artist by creating a common ground firm enough to hold the acutely vulnerable, Tori Amos style ballad ‘5am’. It invites the listener to bring their experiences too, considering where they experience ‘the exchange’ and the fear of being replacable, for instance.
Musically, The Art of Losing is refreshing in that it unashamedly embraces drama. Grief and suffering is portrayed more like a rainbow trout thrashing in a net than a silent shroud. As a result, this album feels defiant, engaged, alive. As well as the obvious influence of the Manics, James Dean Bradfield guests on two tracks, Davies also speaks about Simple Minds being a huge influence. There are hints of The Cure and The Carpenters, and it is intended as a compliment to say The Art Of Losing has the same swoop and scope as peak-period a-ha.
To claim that great art requires suffering is perhaps a cliché to be resisted in the same way as understanding that not everything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. In my experience though, grief and suffering help an individual to understand what they stand for and what they won’t stand for. On The Art Of Losing, The Anchoress absorbs the grief of Catherine Anne Davies and stands for something; a fierce compassion, an accessible working intellectualism, a willingness to do it yourself, a design for living by mastering the art of losing.