The first sound you hear on this album is a curled-up, velvety smoke of a guitar twang from what seems to be behind a thick curtain. A whole 2 minutes and 40 seconds of strumming and harping later — in the foyer called Rider to the sea — we enter the chambers of Anna Calvi’s eponymous album in the real opening track, No more words. Bloody hell. This is a gorgeous, poisonous debut album that no one makes anymore.
At a time when we’ve got retro-chic burning up the airwaves with the likes of Adele and Duffy, this English singer-songwriter-guitarwoman takes us down a dark cabaret chamber and leaves us languishing there. If Bowie gave us the Thin White Duke, the opening track 'No more words' tells you that you are facing the Red Lipsticked Goddess herself. The undertow in Calvi’s voice in this song, tethered to her hypnotically raucous strumming style, is deeply seductive. The music is ethereal, but not of the Enya kind of fake-folk but urban, indoors, night-time and death-defying.
In Desire, the gush of air from the harmonium is joined by whiplash drums with Calvi sounding as if wrapped up in her own skin. The primal force in Calvi’s voice is quite different from the motown-drenched vocals we hear these days in the ongoing R&B singing revival; she lives in a Kurt Weill-Marlene Dietrich alley, her voice booming, soaring, evaporating as she tells us with the utter confidence that comes with the knowledge that some things just don't work out: “I want to go to the sun/ Hold me like I've never done/ But it's just the devil in me/ the devil’s that's calling as I come undone.”
There’s a slip into the Ennio Morricone twang territory after a deceptively 80s Duran Duran-style drums-bashing in Suzanne & I. Calvi switching from a bellyful bellow to a throat snatch of a voice in one song is quite mesmerising. The chamber operatic tone takes a back seat in ‘First we kiss’, almost a tuneless song that is caught by a tune just in the nick of time before it hits the ground. We hear breaths take the shape of words in ‘The devil’, reminding me for some odd reason of the ferral choral music in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The voice here comes across as thick dust, rising and falling on the thin carpet of stringy, almost-white noise guitar play.
But if there is a single stunner in this album, it has to be Blackout. Its sirens-moan vocals start changes gear to that of a grown-up Snow White missing her seven old friends terribly. The circular, pulsating ‘whoo-whoos’ burst into the glorious chorus of Oh blackout/ I gotta know where you’re from/ what are you trying to tell me I don't know/ oh blackout, now this glow has come, you're in the dark/ I could be anyone. The song enters the bloodstream and runs the risk of leaving you changed long after the track’s over.
‘I’ll be your man’ does a nifty gender flip, while the fingers sliding on the bassline in Morning light slip into Calvi’s barely audible voice — that continues for real close in ‘Love won’t be leaving’, the last number on this CD.
Anna Calvi is an album that should go into the classic rack. It fulfils that rare paradox of being awash with soul by seeming to be bereft of it. This is a crafted jewel of a record that will certainly be part of the soundtrack of my life. By which, in my humble way, I mean that it’s staggeringly good.
A little light music
If the 70s German pioneers of electronica Kraftwerk have a worthy successor, it’s the French electronic duo Daft Punk. Providing the soundtrack of the recent science fiction film Tron: Legacy, based on the 80s cult film of the same name, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter merges a classical sound with synthpop. But as the true atmospherics of tracks like Son of Flynn, Recognizer and The game has changed confirm, Daft Punk haven’t just stuck to a synthesiser and drum machine. Instead, electronic music wraps its legs around orchestral sound.
There’s also Euro-groove club tunes in the form of ‘End of line’ and the infectious, speed-injected ‘Derezzed’. Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack is très chic. Or in the spirit of Kraftwerk, should we say uber cool? In a way, it makes us hear the sound of light.