I came late to Keren Ann. She had already burned her feet in Chelsea and seen water by the cathedral before “Lay Your Head Down” from her eponymous 2007 album took me back to lazy summer afternoons in the park and “It’s All a Lie,” “The Harder Ships of the World” and “Where No Endings End” kept me company in dark rooms late at night. Beautiful melancholy, not depressing, but inspiring. The soundscapes rise and fall in swirls of guitars, chanting choirs and eerie keyboards, and there is always that voice, so intimate, so close it seems to be singing only for me. I tracked down what I had missed and lingered over the mysterious charms of “Nolita”, “Not Going Anywhere” and “End of May” and the dark humour of “Sailor & Widow.” And now, almost four years after her last album, Keren Ann is back with 101. Hiding out on the 101st floor, she looks down on the fragments of her life and spins new stories. Each song is a window into a world, like the windows of the apartment building opposite James Stewart’s in Rear Window. Each picture, lit by a different light, is a painting come to life, a painting in sound and words, telling a story. Through one window watch a man and a woman enter a room. They’ve been out and are perhaps a little drunk. “My Name Is Trouble,” she tells him right from the start. She will obsess and possess him and love him to death. But caught in a moment when she turns away to the shadows, we see the expression on her face, the fear of emptiness that drives her, the vulnerability behind the bravado. She has a mysterious past. Next door, a woman plays an old record and leafs slowly through a photograph album, a ghost of a smile on her face. She runs her fingers over one of the photographs. She’s remembering something, a broken love affair perhaps. Life has gone on, and she’s not unhappy, but just for a moment, she feels, how fine it would be to do it all over again. She can hear the noise from the party in the luxury basement apartment below. It looks like an Andy Warhol gathering, with “All The Beautiful Girls” in colourful clothes draped over the furniture drinking wine. An enormous Jackson Pollock covers one wall. It hurts your eyeballs. There is a brittle quality to the conversations, the laughter too sharp and too loud, a sense of something dangerous about to happen. Somewhere, a glass breaks. “Sugar Mama” walks into another room. The young man lounging on the sofa strumming his guitar doesn’t move. He wears torn jeans and a black T shirt, and he hasn’t shaved for three days. The woman twirls a car key on her index finger, winks, hand on hip, and he leaves the room with her. She has a serious car and a plan. But not all the windows open on rooms. The murder that was sure to happen somewhere tonight has happened in the nightclub we see through another window. The performer stands on the stage and there’s blood everywhere, blood on her shoes, on the ceiling, on the piano, on the microphone, on the band, on the instruments. ‘My God, there’s “Blood On My Hands,”’ she thinks, wearing a look of astonishment on her face, shoulders slumped, she can’t believe what they’ve done. The bloody bodies scattered around the floor are real enough. Or are they? She stares out of a tour bus window at her own reflection superimposed on the changing landscapes. New York. Sofia. Paris. Venice. London. She is still free but her heart is empty. In the end, she walks down the stairs from the 101st floor. Each floor has a number and each number suggests a feeling or an image to her: eighty nine bullets, forty six human chromosomes, twenty two guitars…It’s like a skipping rhyme she recites as she descends. But the pictures painted by words and numbers, even the melodies themselves, are all part of a larger soundscape. There’s a shifting soundtrack to all these stories, different moods, like the different qualities of light and colour. The funky beat of “Sugar Mama” sets up its oddball story. The gentle, acoustic beauty of “All the Beautiful Girls” is reminiscent of something from Not Going Anywhere. “You Were on Fire” builds and builds, adds layer after layer, from its acoustic beginnings to strings and a ghostly choir. Ethereal keyboards, strings and echoing choirs reach a chilling crescendo in “Strange Weather.” There is beautiful melancholy here, in the stories haunted by loss, heartbreak and longing, but there is also hope. There is also a new energy, a broader range, a sense of new ground broken. The voice reaches out more, but Keren Ann retains her enigmatic quality, her intimate bond with the listener, and the vignettes still mystify as much as they illuminate. Nothing is sacrificed. Ultimately 101 embodies what Keren Ann`s music is all about: the songs, the voice, the sound.
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