Review Summary: Romantic Works is the soundtrack to a movie which doesn't exist.
Keaton Henson's latest release, the "bedroom classical" experiment known as Romantic Works
, is the dictionary definition of a surprise album. Fans expecting a follow up to the mostly delicate, occasionally vicious, but always gorgeous guitar-and-vocals record which was Birthdays
were instead greeted with sparse piano pieces and lightly humming strings. Gone is the now familiar ache in Keaton's voice as he bares his heart to the world, gone are the beautiful but distant female vocals, long gone are the surprise explosions into distorted guitars and drums. Perhaps most noticeably of all, gone are the lyrics, spinning us heart-wrenching stories of heartbreak and loss and leaving yet more feelings of absence in their wake. Instead, we are greeted by the empty, emotionless sound of footsteps and mournful strings playing almost at random which is "Preface."
An entirely instrumental album is a bold move at this point for an artist whose fanbase almost literally hangs on every word, and whose fantastic vocal talent has become a sure-fire staple for success. And yet, success is undeniably the last thing on Keaton's mind as he composes his music. His enigmatic nature and the unorthodox nature of his live shows seems to have garnered the artist as much attention as his music. And yet, what makes Henson a special phenomenon in the sometimes murky waters of the singer-songwriter scene is his complete lack of any form of public persona. For all intents and purposes, Keaton Henson makes music entirely for himself. The lyrics on Dear...
are personal to the point of being intrusive, the studio is more often than not a bedroom, and the interviews are non-existent to scarce, and even then spoken in vagaries and treated as rare delicacies. There is nothing fake or dishonest about the British singer-songwriter, a simple fact which would be laudable if it weren't for the sadly solitary and uncomfortable man the audience is presented with instead. Keaton does not feel comfortable in front of an audience or around human beings in general, and yet his compositions are without reservation or restraint. Ultimately, Romantic Works
is the lesser in quality of Keaton's three albums. It is homogeneous, somewhat repetitive, and in more than a few places slightly unmemorable. Having said that, it is also his most honest and heartfelt work to date, a statement of art stripped down to its barest form, stripped of any polish, sheen, or gloss, and suitably lacking the use of words to manipulate the feelings of the audience.
From the calm, simplistic, piano-led soundscapes which comprise "Elevator Song" and "Nearly Curtains" to the slightly more melodramatic peaks and crests of "Healah Dancing" and "Josella" to the bittersweet rainy-day vibe which pervades the appropriately titled "Petrichor", Keaton wordlessly guides the listener through an environment of mutually understood emotions which are almost felt
in the music rather than heard; the gradual onset of disappointment following an achievement, the numbness after sadness, the mixed feelings of despondency and new life which come with the rain; the absence of any distinct emotion somehow producing an even more powerful reaction. For a man who previously stuck almost exclusively to the guitar, the stringed instruments are handled with a delicacy and ability that is nothing short of expert, and the compositions are, repetitive or not, powerful enough in their sheer beauty to sustain the listener's interest for the appropriately short runtime.
is an old photograph, frayed at the edges, but able to conjure a bittersweet memory. It is the soundtrack to a movie which doesn't exist, a movie which shows in bold but simple frames the fragility of the human mind. It is (quite literally for a few seconds in "Nearly Curtains") the voice of a child echoing down a distant hallway. It is a point-of-view snapshot of a man who cannot perform live because of his crippling anxiety, to whom a beautiful voice and immense songwriting talent are simply vehicles through which to share a burden, to tell the world of a heart and head full of distrust, scorn and even self-loathing. Keaton may be a man accustomed to sorrow and loss, but it has made him so keenly attuned to these emotions that he can play on the heartstrings of his audience using nothing more than a bedroom mic and some charity-shop instruments. Above and beyond anything else I could say, Romantic Works
is quite simply the beautiful sound of a beating heart.