‘Dark Water’ is a tough album to review, but for a reason that does British singer-songwriter Katie Blount’s nine-track debut no discredit whatsoever. The “problem” is that while ‘Dark Water’ packs several punches of the folk-tinged acoustic-guitar-based variety, such is the knock-out potency of the last song, ‘Orion Sky’, that it risks completely eclipsing what’s come before.
With a very simple but finely sculpted melody, and equally clear but poignant lyrics on the subject of death – specifically of those we love – on ‘Orion Sky’ the implacably melancholic mood that stalks the length and breadth of ‘Dark Water’ as an album is welded into four and a bit minutes of stark, hard-hitting beauty. ‘Orion Sky’ is essentially a plea for a little more time together that the singer knows will go unanswered, but which has to be made all the same.
“Paintings we hung have drawn themselves free / Photographs we captured have found their liberty / Our love once mirrored now has no reply / Staring back at me your Orion sky / Take me with you when you go / Take me with you when you leave / You ain’t coming back.”
It goes without saying that all the other fine qualities already so much in evidence on the previous eight tracks of ‘Dark Water’ kick in again. Amongst them are Blount’s quietly sensual, versatile singing style and a guitar accompaniment hovering half-way between pop and folk that acts as a solid, if very much low key, bedrock to the lyrics. There’s also, often, clever half-repetitions of previous choruses to provide echoes of earlier ideas, but simultaneously move them on.
A stand-out track ‘Orion Sky’ may be, but that’s not saying that this album is a one-trick pony. Other highlights include ‘The Alchemy of Modern Times’, a timely warning against the dangers of complacency when faced with modern-day politicians’ populist rants and wiles: “They appear as if from a dream / With a face you don’t recognise / Stealing your teeth for jewellery.”
the London-based singer points out in one typically acerbic, and striking aside. And if that line has a definite whiff of Leonard Cohen, one of the key influences Blount cites in interviews, there are surely more echoes of the Canadian artist in her surreal, wry dismantling of the brittle self-esteem of an artist in ‘Tap Dancing to the Blues’: “When you believed you’d turned to gold / Their laughter made you bleed”.
That kind of directness of observation while keeping strong poetic roots is one of the great strengths of ‘Dark Water’. It’s arguably at its best on songs dealing with emotionally fragile moments like ‘Shadowlands’, where the pithy but lyrical analysis of the process of falling out of love short-circuits any temptation to overdose on self-pity: “I cannot tell you of the dreams / I’ve squandered joyriding on extremes /Grasping the dying hand of desire / With its cold taste of iron wire.”
With barely any accompaniment – some harmonica solos appear on two tracks, some percussion on just one – there are a couple of points on ‘Dark Water’ where the densely sombre lyrics like these maybe gets severely stretched over too little musical substance. In ‘Theatre Cafe’ and ‘The Lost Conversation’ in particular, the whole construct feels so top-heavy with words and lacking in pace, it veers perilously close to collapsing under its own weight.
But these moments of inertia are thankfully very rare. Normally Blount’s poised, never over-stated style of singing, meandering gracefully through the lyrics’ jagged thickets of desperation and self-doubt – to breath-taking effect on songs like the title track – more than maintains the album’s overall momentum. Then on ‘Orion Sky’, the music suddenly blasts off towards a stunning, track-of-the-year dimension, simultaneously lifting the whole album towards an exceptional class of its own.