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Keaton Henson - Dear...

  • Written by  Russell Warfield

Part of me thinks I should go really, really easy on Keaton Henson's debut album Dear.... Recorded alone in his bedroom and never performed live owing to Henson’s crippling anxiety, I'm reticent to turn the screws on a release which presumably marks a huge leap of courage for him, being brave enough to submit these songs for public approval. But combining the brink-of-tears vocal work of people like Damien Rice and Perfume Genius with the rustic fingerpicking of last year's excellent Josh T Pearson record (saturated with all the dourness and heartache implied by these comparisons) requires an artist to walk a very, very fine line, the slightest hint of artifice or unwarranted melodrama bringing the house of cards down quite dramatically. And sadly, there's a slightly try-hard streak running through Henson's affectations which ultimately make these ten songs eye-rolling rather than eye-watering.

One of the biggest nails in the coffin to Dear... is the sourness which laces most of these tracks. Whilst the slightly peppy midpoint 'Sarah Minor' hits a pleasant better-to-have-loved-and-lost tone with a breezy sing-along melody, most songs on offer are dripping with a barely concealed narcissistic rage that this woman had the nerve to leave him/reject his advances. Hands down low-point 'Not That You'd Notice' brings in a group of crooning voices to bolster Henson's passive-aggressive revenge fantasies (“I won't move till you love me / I won't dance till you hold me / And it won't be long / Till you know my song... I think we'll be even then don't you agree?”) - an intensely grating dirge, being impossible not to picture the backing vocalists swaying together to the music, holding fucking candles, bursting into hysterical tears and falling into each other's arms just as soon as the song's over.

These songs play like a catalogue of recent singer-songwriter break-up-song clichés, such as the focus on small, mundane details of a relationship in order to convey a nu-masculine sensitivity with all the proficiency of a Nick Hornby novel – lines like “I miss your small hands in the palm of mine / And the fact they're good at making / Miss you sitting up incessantly / And the fact you're always waking in the night” being so twee that they make you want to eat your own teeth. But the truly irredeemable undercutting of this album is his apparent petulance in the face of heartbreak, coming across as being absolutely convinced that he's been so desperately wronged – can't she see?! It's spite re-branded as sensitivity owing purely to the fragile arrangements.

As I've said, plenty of people are going to love this (plenty already do), because this sort of life-on-the-line album lives or dies by its ability to sell itself to you convincingly – something it's clearly achieving with a huge audience of listeners. For me, however, without the counterbalancing self-awareness and occasional flashes of redemption displayed by similarly downtrodden artists like the already-mentioned Perfume Genius and Josh T. Pearson, even the terrifically gorgeous melodies of many of these songs (such as widely lauded single 'You Don't Know How Lucky You Are' and the genuinely lovely 'Flesh and Bone') wither in the face of Heaton's overbearing melodrama – an extended exploration of having been shit on from a great height so relentless that it becomes hollow and unconvincing. If you have any taste for this sort of tortured (or, should I say torturous?) acoustica, then there's plenty of effective connection between Heaton's warbling vocal and aching guitar to please you – but sadly his overwrought attempts to be honest and display sensitivity ultimately brand Dear... as an unwelcome exercise in self indulgent posturing, desperate for undeserved sympathy.

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