Singer-songwriter Keaton Henson's second album Birthdays really is an album of two halves. It develops the hushed and emotionally frail sound found on his bedroom produced debut effort Dear. But crucially it introduces some explosive new elements, which as the title suggests really does sound as if Henson is now giving birth to the different sonic possibilities of his compositions. While it's still rather melancholy and shoe-gazing, Birthdays has a venomous streak waiting to emerge in its latter half that's worth sticking around for.
Reclusive is one word that's used to describe Henson regularly. While the Londoner has an air of the tortured artist about him, his seeming reluctance to embrace live performance hasn't dulled his ability to connect with an audience. His songs, while heartfelt, display a confidence and world-weary attitude beyond his years. He's not afraid of sparse arrangements yet when he does introduce new elements like strings, they don't distract from his delicate and whispered vocal. At times he really does seem to have captured the essence of what made Jeff Buckley's Grace so great, but he manages deftly to avoid imitating Buckley, despite adopting a remarkably similar sound.
"Damn it, don't expect me to change" Henson sings on opener 'Teach Me'. It's a song filled with emotional dysfunction and hope, backed with a solitary electric guitar and some ghostly backing harmonies. While it's not the most arresting introduction to Birthdays, it defiantly shows that Henson isn't interested in what's expected of him. Instead, he's more than happy to lull the listener into a false sense of security before unleashing his inner demons later on during the record. And for the first five songs that's exactly what he does. They're all delicate love songs filled with a single guitar, delay effects, some lovely harmonies, and the occasional bit of percussion thrown in. But suddenly as sixth track 'Don't Swim' seems to be winding down and Henson repeats the line "Don't lie" the record explodes into life.
In an experience that could be compared to waking up violently from a dream, the coda to the song introduces a wall of guitars and drums that elevates Birthdays from an obscure curio into something altogether more compelling. The following track 'Kronos' doesn't let up the pace either, revealing an angst-ridden side to Henson that doesn't sound defeated; instead he's defiant ("And if you've no more to say that that, oh well, I'll be leaving and I won't come back."). His anger sounds almost uncontrollable as he bathes his guitars in feedback.
Henson veers towards his quieter persona on 'Beekeeper' as he introduces a banjo. But the subtle underlying crackle of guitars points towards another sonic outburst, he duly obliges during the choruses. It's a trick that he also employs on 'Sweetheart What Have You Done To Us?' While the piano led closing track 'In The Morning' is far more sedate and sounds as if it's a song that James Blunt wishes that he'd written, by this point Henson has done enough to capture your attention. Strangely, despite its Jekyll and Hyde nature, Birthdays doesn't sound disjointed; instead, it's an organic emotional journey as the record progresses. For that reason, it deserves to be heard front to back without shuffling the songs, which is something not a lot of albums manage to achieve in the digital age.
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