If you were looking for a single word to describe English songwriter Keaton Henson’s career output thus far, bittersweet would unquestionably be among the first to come to mind.
Seemingly driven by a constant desire to create ‘Kindly Now’ finds Henson’s gift for intimate, melancholy meditations on art, love and death in rude health. Since his last release, 2014’s ‘Romantic Works’. Henson has busied himself building a reputation as a visual artist, poet and film score composer. It’s clear that these outside interests have only served to fuel the fire of his songwriting. In many ways ‘Kindly Now’ feels like a culmination of everything Henson has done so far. A catalogue of everything he has been through personally and professionally.
Henson is a mixture of strange contradictions. Searingly honest in his lyrics but intensely private in his personal life. He routinely answers interview questions with cryptic pictures rather than words. Henson has openly admitted his uncomfortable relationship with performing. Preferring infrequent performances at venues far smaller than he could now easily fill. His battles with anxiety and self doubt are clear both in life and in his music. Yet he is compelled to keep writing songs. Regardless of whether it is a catharsis or a damage to his fragile ego. It’s this striving to be loved. Both personally and professionally. To create something that lasts beyond his life, which drives the album.
If chance meetings with former lovers have often been fertile grounds for songwriters, most notably recently in Adele’s ‘Hello’, ‘Old Lovers in Dressing Rooms’ still manages to offer something new to the sub genre. Henson giving both parties points of view. Without attempting to apportion blame for the relationship ending. It’s noticeable that even in this presumably fictitious conversation Henson’s side borders on monosyllabic. The question of who he is bleeding through in lyrics like “Is that really you behind that beard? I say I think so”. The chorus line “Did you really love me like the way you wrote? I’m afraid so.” showcasing Henson’s voice wonderfully. Always a unique and plaintive blend of desperate falsetto and near spoken whispers. Here used to heartbreaking effect.
‘The Pugilist’ sees Henson grappling with the aforementioned struggles with anxiety and the fear of death as a driving force behind his creativity. The line “So scared of death that I try to leave part of me” brings to mind a quote from author Chuck Palaniuk’s book Diary “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will”. Songs about songwriting often collapse under the weight of their own self importance. ‘The Pugilist’ manages to pack in so much self doubt that it’s impossible not to feel for Henson. His desperate pleas of “Don’t forget me” aching with fragility and need.
‘Kindly Now’ is testament to the fact that Henson needn’t worry about being remembered or loved. Ultimately the line “After all I’m an artist, I’ve still got songs in me yet” should be a heartening thought both for Henson and the listener.