Keaton Henson has released his third album, Romantic Works. The album is orchestral and entirely instrumental (excluding voices on field recordings), with arrangements of woodwind and piano (and cello from Ren Ford) that were recorded in his own home. As a result, the album is quite a departure from Dear… and Birthdays, swapping the introverted folk for what Henson describes as ‘bedroom classical’.
Romantic Works is, at least in part, centred around his experiences with stage fright and anxiety, with Henson using the album to explore the issues that have blighted his career as a live musician (‘Elevator Song’ is based upon an attack of pre-concert nerves while in a Glasgow lift). However, the stage fright metaphor/allegory is far from obvious or overwhelming, indeed I would have missed it had I not read the feature on Henson from The Independent. For me, on first listening to Romantic Works, the album sounds like the soundtrack to an arty film, in which even the simplest images and actions are melancholic and sad.
Irrespective of ulterior meanings, this is the album’s greatest achievement – how it seems to stand for a normal existence, its for lush and mournful instrumentation supported by field recordings, serving to highlight the beauty and sorrow of normal life. Again, ‘Elevator Song’ is a perfect example of this, with its poignant mood building up to the final recording of an automated voice warning on closing doors, rendering what at first seemed like a dramatic four minutes as something commonplace, a simple event. ‘Field’ uses bird song, ‘Josella’ the starting of a car, and each takes a familiar sound and gives it attention, supports it with traditionally ‘nice’ sounds of piano and cello, allowing it to it seem more important or meaningful. The album is at once tragic and beautiful, sombre and hopeful and lovely.
Of course, you could argue that my interpretation is not all that far from Henson’s intentions, and that fear and anxiety and the desire to run/hide is intrinsically linked with a modern ‘normal existence,’ opening up a whole new set of questions as to why this may be (and whether we have always been this way). It also refreshing and encouraging to see a young musician begin to describe and address these issues, and it nice to think that there is still a chance for artists to operate successfully under such stresses.