'Oh the last time I felt lonely the room was full'When I was at university in the 1990's, young women on my English literature course were all about The Plath. Particularly her novel,'The Bell Jar', was like catnip and many shallow young male students professed admiration for it for less than academic reasons.
If only there had been a soundtrack to evenings in halls discussing the book's subtexts maybe some of us would have got more lucky than we did. However that would make us as bad as hypocritical Buddy, the boyfriend of the book's protagonist or the loathsome lothario, Marco for ignoring the struggle for sanity and social acceptance that Esther strives for.
When Kathryn Williams was commissioned to provide songs based on 'The Bell Jar' as part of 50th anniversary celebrations at the Durham Book Festival in 2013 she returned to the novel and was struck by how modern and relevant it had remained. The set of songs that make up her new album 'Hypoxia' show a deep understanding of the pain, experiences and anger of Esther and those around her. Those who have undergone any kind of therapy, periods of depression or mental illness will find lines here that cut right to the heart of the matter
'The heart beats on it's own / Plotting out the times to come/ It knows it can, it beats - I Am I Am I Am I am I Am'
It's hard to encapsulate the album's sound in a word, so I won't try but it is woozy, claustrophobic, dreamlike and sparky - a real star turn by producer Ed Harcourt who also adds harmony vocals. The opening 'Electric' is slowly enveloped by a fuzzy warm embrace as Kathryn's vocal slips into accepting ennui. 'Mirrors' crackles with synapse pulsing energy, Kathryn utilising her onstage vocal looping to great effect echoing Esther's confusion and fear as her grip on her self starts to change. On repeat listens you hear new sounds and vocal inflections that pull you further into the eye of the storm.
The expressiveness of Kathryn's voice has always been what drew me in to her work and on this record she really does emote the hell out of the material, the 'ticking, ticking bomb' of 'Battleships' giving the feeling of menace, fear and disgust in the book's scene where Esther is cajoled into meeting her boyfriend, Buddy, by both their parents in an attempt to steer her onto the path to marriage and the accepted norm for a young women of the age. The imagining of this scene as a game of battleships with Esther trying to avoid the traps set for her and destroy any attempts to break down her resolve works really well.
'Cuckoo' beautifully condenses the feelings of many parents and relatives of people with mental illness - that others will look upon them as somehow responsible for their child's illness and thereby they struggle to understand why or how this could come to pass. In the novel Esther's mother, when Esther agrees to see a psychiatrist sighs in great relief - "I know my baby wasn't like those awful dead people at that hospital. I knew you'd decide to be alright again". Kathryn shows her inability to sympathise with her daughter, 'My little girl's gone mad / And who will they blame but me?' with the echoed refrain 'I couldn't pick you out of a crowd' demonstrating how the illness has taken Esther and the dream of a life she had for her daughter away.
As I said there are so many lines that just cut to the core of how mental illness effects us all. 'When Nothing Meant Less' is the track I keep coming back to again and again as it speaks to that dark part of me that I kept hidden for so long. 'And when you thought that I was strong / I always knew that you were wrong' she sings to her childhood friend reflecting on the journey both their lives have taken. The regret and despair of 'And I don't even know how your story ends / Cos you turned a corner and I stayed on the bend' is just heart-breaking.
This isn't a solemn or depressing listen by any means - melancholy, yes, but there's nowt wrong with that - a key chapter in the book receives the angry and pointed 'Tango With Marco' as he is pinned to the wall with sharp lyrical blades 'On the back of your eyes there's a list / Of the different ways to hit - and kiss' who sees women as 'a coat draped on your arm / I'm a jar on your shelf/ Or a pig in the farm'. Whereas the waltzing 'The Mind Is It's Own Place' brings comfort in our ability to survive life's traumas and emerge hopefully stronger and wiser on the other side.
'Oh please put down your fears / My plan was always to get you out of here / get you clear'
To get the most out of the album it may have helped if you have read the novel on which it is based but as I had already done so I can't tell. It may have deeper significance if you have suffered periods of mental illness but again I can't help you there. What I do know is that 'Hypoxia' speaks as strongly and assuredly as 'The Bell Jar' does about life's expectations, troubles and the wondrous way in which the spirit endures despite it all.
'Hypoxia' is released on 15th June 2015 via One Little Indian Records on CD, Vinyl and I-tuneshttp://indian.co.uk/shop/hypoxia-album.html
Kathryn is touring throughout the UK over the next few months so get out and catch her live
(I'M TRYING TO KEEP MY BLOG REGULARLY UPDATED BUT HAVE ABOUT COUPLE OF A DOZEN THINGS HALF WRITTEN THE I CAN'T FINISH. THIS FLEW OUT OF ME LIKE A WATERFALL WHICH IS WHY IT IS HERE)