Release Date: Apr 9, 2013
Record label: Anti
Keaton Henson’s sophomore release may be the most heartbreaking record of the year—and a welcome one at that. As a vocalist Henson lands somewhere between Wayne Coyne and a more consistent Daniel Johnston; his lyrics have the same emotional honesty as the latter and all the imagination of the former. Henson is his own artist, though, crafting a record that is mostly spare and as much a love letter as it is a missive of resignation.
When finding time between costume changes to accept her gong for best album at the recent BRIT Awards, Emeli Sandé voiced her emotions, saying “that so many people connected with this album and found strength in these words makes me feel incredible, and it doesn’t make me feel as lonely”. Claiming music as therapy on a massive corporate ticket automatically sounds hollow – big, empty words for a big, empty space – especially when coming from an artist seemingly on a one woman mission to redefine ubiquity. Yet Keaton Henson definitely would’ve got the message, despite being as far removed from the BRIT ethos as possible.
Hardly the celebration the title suggests, 23-year-old Keaton Henson’s second album finds the shy Richmond guitar-picker breaking out a little from the intense, introverted folk of his debut, ‘Dear…’. Not that you’d know it from the first half of the record. Henson spends 20-odd minutes working his tremulous voice – somewhere between Paul Simon and Wayne Coyne – around echoing guitar, pleading “Please don’t hurt me/I am the fragile one” (‘10am, Gare Du Nord’) and crying “Although I’m young I feel 80 years old” (‘Lying To You’) as the music fades from reach, delicate as a butterfly’s wing.
Arecluse subject to panic attacks in public, Keaton Henson is fearless in the privacy of song. His debut album, Dear, which crept out of his bedroom three years ago, dissected heartbreak with stark honesty. Its followup offers more of the same, but with studio polish: a querulous voice pitched between Conor Oberst and Marcus Mumford, a guitar played as gingerly as if he were handling raw eggs, and a piercing light shone on the dust of the past.
The beard, tremulous falsetto and bedroom gestation of Keaton Henson are traits familiar from any number of backwaters folk-inspired songwriters. Less so his take on love. "Promise to never have been born," he croons barely a minute in, and picks at lovers, relationships and his own shortcomings with much the same lacerating honesty elsewhere. It brings this twentysomething west Londoner closer to authentically harrowing troubadours such as Josh T Pearson than the soft-focus angst of many of his peers.
Birthdays, the sophomore outing from English singer/songwriter Keaton Henson, finds the terminally heartbroken Londoner updating the lo-fi bedroom din of his 2010 debut Dear... in favor of a more lush and expansive, though no less brooding, patina of ruin. Like Dear..., which took all of the most intimate, uncomfortable, and painful bits of Henson's love life and set them against a minimalist, guitar-picked backdrop that sounded like a cross between Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago and demos for Jeff Buckley's Grace, Birthdays is so fragile and broken that listening to it without signing some kind of non-disclosure agreement feels borderline voyeuristic.
Keaton Henson’s brand of sad bastard folk music explains why I’m in therapy. The fragile English singer-songwriter/professional introvert hangs his many anxieties on each of his guitar’s six strings, where they moan and shiver and yelp, creating cough syrup for any self-respecting manic depressive. His folksy 2010 debut, Dear…, was a hard beatific listen that tickled the loins with songs like ”You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are”, “Not That You’d Even Notice”, and the ironic closer “Party Song”.
Keaton Henson is a renaissance man. Designer and illustrator of record sleeves and Topman t-shirts, owner of a magnificent beard. Heartbreaker and heartbroken. Singer of sad, sad songs in a sad, sad voice. Blessed with a beautiful, halting falsetto and a way with words, he is a very sad man, and ….
Henson’s stripped-back sound is almost shocking in its purity. Martin Aston 2013 In this frantic Twitterworld, where all the genres of music are either mating with other genres, feeding on the past or searching for the next trending wave, Keaton Henson personifies the moment when time stops still. It’s the almost shocking sound of one man and his gently stoked electric guitar, which flicks like the embers of a fire, as the singer’s voice glows in the reflected light, safe in his panic room.
I won’t deny that I find Keaton Henson a fascinating individual. His relative success seems a total accident and perhaps completely unwanted by someone who suffers from crippling stage fright, anxiety and struggles to hold a one-on-one. Yet, he’s a singer-songwriter with album number two completed, a poet and an extremely talented visual artist.