Thea Gilmore has been a song-writing heavyweight on the British circuit for a long time and has shown a knack for consistent quality and a down-to-earth music that fiddles with genre and tweaks the nose of expectation. Can her latest album live up to such heady appeal or has the magic touch run dry for the Oxford singer?
The short answer is that it lives up boldly and 2017’s The Counterweight may go down as one of the best. Not one for shying away from challenge in her lyrics, the subject matter recalls 2003’s The Avalanche in its exploration of the issues Gilmore feels we face – war, socio-political upheaval, and the Orlando shootings all get their moments in this politically charged yet exquisitely beautiful 15th studio album
Beginning with a simple dual-tone piano that Gilmore’s voice soars over majestically, we are soon treated to meatier fayre with a darker, more insistent turn that drives lyrics into the skull with the subtlest of hammers. This really is a teaser for the whole album in the sense that this is a songwriter who is going to deliver the heaviest message with the gentlest of skill. Who said art can’t be didactic and beautiful?
Further in, songs like Leatherette reveal a penchant for electronic instrumentation but it never fully replaces the piano/strings combination and the voice is nuanced yet powerful enough to retain the bags of humanity required to prevent political overload and remind us that for all the worldwide events, issues and messy situations they are all, first and foremost about real people. Not that the message ever takes precedence over the making of music, but some listeners may be turned off by her world-view, if allowing themselves time away from the simple melodic beauty of every song.
Despite the far-ranging subject matter, this is also a very British record, with an appealing clip to the vocal and a general sense that despite the influences at play, British folk has played a role in shaping the sound. For anyone that gets frustrated with British Americana/folk artists emulating the drawl of their cousins from across the pond, this may be an antidote.
This is a fine album that can easily lose you in its charms or challenge you to think and it’s difficult to ask much more from an album than that.