Issue #34: Birthdays by Keaton Henson

September 19, 2016

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Birthdays by Keaton Henson
Released On February 25, 2013
Released By Oak Ten Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By James Peart

When compiling a list of records I wanted to share for Off Your Radar, Keaton’s Henson’s Birthdays always had a big question mark next to it. Even now, I’m incredibly reticent to share it with you all, as selfish as that sounds. This is an incredibly personal record both for Henson and I, but it would be a shame not to share this beautiful, enchanting album.

I first discovered Henson in 2014 after hearing one of his songs on The Blacklist and for the next few weeks, I found myself absorbing all of his work. Around the same time, I started a new relationship and lo’ and behold, she too knew Keaton Henson. It felt like we were the only two people in the world who knew about him and it seemed like he even made his music just for us. Unfortunately, the relationship ended after a few months and as you might expect, I was devastated and Birthdays soon became the soundtrack to this heartbreak.

Even now, two years on, whenever I listen to Birthdays, it brings up a swell of emotions both happy and sad. It provides a cathartic release that makes me grateful for where I am today and I can only imagine it evokes the same feelings from Henson himself.

Birthdays is a beautiful and poignant record, a deconstruction of an ended relationship that looks at the positives and negatives from both sides. The record is about Henson’s relationship with French singer/actress Soko that ended back in 2011. Whilst Henson has never openly spoken about the meaning behind the record (he shies away from the public eye due to anxiety and stage fright that sees him rarely perform live), songs like “10am Gare du Nord” and “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us” all but confirm the record is about the French singer. Soko herself released a song on her second album My Dreams Dictate My Reality called “Keaton’s Song,” which is widely regarded as a reply to Birthdays. It’s a beautiful song that I recommend you give a listen to as an almost epilogue to this record.

Whilst I adore almost every track on this album, for me there are two stand-out songs. “Kronos” is a mid-album gut punch. Just as you think you’ve heard everything Henson has to offer, we get a full-on rock song with pounding drums. “You son of a bitch, stop writing songs like this”, Henson sings in a song full of anger. The second is the aforementioned “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us,” a mournful and triumphant song that swells in trumpets upon its conclusion. I also recommend watching the music video for this track where Henson, who poorly mimes the song throughout, breaks down in tears and runs off set, which the director confirmed was all very real. It gives you that sense of what these songs mean to him.

What I love most about this record is how real it all feels. This album defines what it means to hurt, with themes of guilt, longing, and despair, all set to a backdrop of hushed picked electric guitar and a voice so fragile you fear it may break into a cry at any moment. This isn’t a man publicly bashing an ex-girlfriend, but rather a broken-hearted soul trying to figure out where it all went wrong. It’s not always an easy listen — it’s full of immense sadness after all — but it’s a record that resonates with you.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist

A dense, melodic mind overshadowed by deep, emotional pain.

Keaton Henson was not so much off my radar as rejected from it, failing the 20-second test for having a too-quavery voice. But, not wanting to endanger my OYR charter, I stuck with Birthdays this week, only slightly resentful for the time it was leaching from my Frank Ocean immersion. Along the way, I grew to have a great deal of respect for Henson’s songwriting and the brilliant production choices on the album, but I also began to notice some odd parallels between Birthdays and Ocean’s Blond(e). Some examples: Many tracks are without drums, or have percussion that comes and goes; random noises intrude here and there; several songs explore new possibilities for vocals and unaccompanied guitar; and they both employ introspective, unsettled lyrics. Can’t you almost hear Frank singing “I’m truly alone and I like it?” A major exception is “Kronos,” which explodes into a grungy guitar apotheosis, using a different form of catharsis than what Ocean would choose. Of course, Henson and Ocean come from very different sides of the tracks, and it’s more likely that fans of the former will like the latter than vice versa. But the fact remains that Blond(e) listeners from all corners of the world are going to need to look further outside the R&B box, as Ocean himself did so effectively, to get more of what they get from his album. They would do well to check in on Keaton Henson, as would anyone else interested in contemporary singer-songwriters.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Expulsions, remembered. It begins like a stark loon call across the surface of a vacant, still lake. Growing ever slightly stronger, until we find ourselves out in the middle. The breeze picks up. Whispers of Jeff Buckley and Antony and the Johnsons, though a shade less piercing. Just as we cross the threshold, we take a moment staring into the black dusk murk before plunging, flying in the face of the admonition of “Don’t Swim.” The fuzz of the bubbles tickles our ears. Pulling ourselves back into the vessel, the rip of a motor and trap kit surging forward and the plaintiff ascension begins. On the hull scrawled, “Kronos,” only just obscured by a white knuckled grip. The wind beats against the chest, subsiding with the decline in velocity. A slight reverberation of a boyish black sheep wafts through the mist. Cushioned hammers strike the strings as we lay our head down on the wet sand, close our eyes and let the dark wash over.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz

I learned from One Week One Band that Keaton Henson doesn’t do shows because of anxiety, and for better or worse, I read that before I dove into Birthdays. As a result, hearing his voice for the first time was like putting the last piece in a puzzle and having it fit just right. The way his voice wavers during sustained note … the intensity with which he sings … it matched this impression I’d formed of a serious and vulnerable songwriter. (If his voice were wine, I’d take a whiff and talk about notes of Conor O’Brien of Villagers and of Ray LaMontagne, both accomplished purveyors of vulnerability.) But listening closer to Birthdays made clear that there’s a strength underpinning that vulnerability. That strength seemed especially apparent during “Lying To You,” a brutal portrait of a love-starved relationship. He sings “I’m truly alone and I like it” about halfway through the song, and when he does, it’s not just an expression of self-sufficiency; he’s also staking claim to an internality that nobody — not even the person he’s supposed to be closest to — can touch. Solipsism is so often cast as a curse, but Henson celebrates it here. It’s still a very sad song — the last line, “’cause I found her, and now she is gone,” sees to that — but there’s something incredibly uplifting about the idea that even in the bleakest emotional circumstances, there’s always a place inside your own mind that’s yours and yours alone. Safety via solipsism. I can get behind that.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Click below to watch the poignant and minimal video for “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us.”

Much like the record itself, the dynamic shift in the video is both unexpected and distressing.

Looking back, I think my favorite girl that I ever dated (so far) would also be the strangest girl I ever dated (so far). She wasn’t necessarily the best looking (a solid 7), or the most “down,” or even the most into me. But she was just the right amount of weird, and that made her so much fun, interesting, sexy, and most of all, enchanting. There was nobody else like her. The way she thought was somewhere in between stoner and savant. The way she dressed was somewhere in between stoner and savant. I was actually interested in everything she had to say because I never knew if it would enlighten me, or have me rolling on the floor in laughter (at her). Full disclosure, she had to move away, far away, due to her job (political campaign organizer) a few years ago. She was just so charming in the most unorthodox ways. And that’s such an appropriate way to characterize Birthdays by Keaton Henson. His voice is so weird, it’s enchanting. It’s just so charming in the most unorthodox ways. Remember the first time you heard The Weeknd? This is the soft-rock version of that. Are you telling me that the dramatically elegant “You” wouldn’t fit perfectly next to “Earned It” on the 50 Shades soundtrack? Please. They’re not the greatest singers in the world (solid 7’s), but their voices are so unapologetically raw and emotive. Oh, and the subtle vocal arrangements on “Teach Me” are just sick. Great pick this week. I’m a new fan for sure.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Now this is what I call playing the long game. I don’t want to give away any spoilers if you haven’t listened all the way through, but there is a dynamic shift in the middle of “Don’t Swim” where the mellow acoustic jam explodes into this bombastic, furious inferno with loud guitars and crashing cymbals that is kind of crucial to the whole album. For me, it contextualized all of the more mellow-sounding songs that led up to it. When the album ended and I started it over, the introductory five tracks had this tension to them that had been undetectable before. I realized that Henson is simmering for almost the entire album until he allows himself to boil over as he does in “Don’t Swim” and again in the next song “Kronos.” This is such a dense, complex, lyrical album and I am looking forward to getting to know it a lot better as we move into the darker, more isolating months!

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

I was a little shocked at how depressing this record was headed after the first few songs. I was in denial that anything interesting would happen after the first three songs were filled with quivering vocals full of pain. I felt a little guilty for almost giving up but then, after nearly thirty minutes, Keaton finally explodes in anger on “Don’t Swim.” But by the time we get to “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us,” Keaton’s loneliness resurfaces. Will he find peace and be able to work through the past to forgive his ex-lover? He makes a little progress on “If I Don’t Have To,” even if the tone comes across a little bitter. Keaton leaves us hanging on the news of a rebound, but it still doesn’t sound like he’s accepted himself. Hopefully the follow up record, Romantic Works, is an indicator that everything worked out in the end.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

Not to sully the actual album cover, but this shot perfectly portrays the feeling and meaning of the record.

When Joanna Newsom’s Milk Eyed Mender came out twelve (!!) years ago, I used to play it for people just to see their faces when they first heard her voice. My friend Leslie did a killer impression of the folk songbird, which she graced me with recently (it’s still funny). Since Newsom — who I honestly adore — debuted, there has been a rash of unusual but beautiful voices in indie rock, like Angel Olsen and Justin Vernon. Once I heard Birthdays, I knew Keaton Henson should be added to that list of talented people with truly special voices. The delicate wavering of Henson’s voice drew me into his deceptively simple, guitar-and-voice music immediately. By the time he sang, “Dammit I’m calling you mine” in “10am Gare du Nord,” I wanted to know his stories and I wanted him to sing them to me. Granted, some of his stories are achingly sad — PJ and I joked this could be one of those Music To ____ By LPs from the ’50s, with the blank being “Kill Yourself.” And during one of my many listens to Birthday this week, I fell asleep. Don’t hold that against Henson, we had just hosted my friend and her children at our house for lunch and afterwards, his music became a sweet, stress-relieving lullaby at my (adult woman) naptime. I love when doing Off Your Radar surprises me — within Keaton Henson’s Birthday I have found a genuine, touching songwriter whose path I will now follow.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

On the surface, Birthdays might appear as downtrodden and full of misery. That might be true, but there’s more to it than that. Keaton Henson spins tales that are inspired by his anxieties, heartache, and turmoil. The environments that the songs live in are not the happiest. Yet, Birthdays leads me to think that there is a catharsis happening with each song. Even if the narratives of “The Best Today” or “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us” are fearful observations, Henson might have shared these experiences in song form as a way of reliving the mild beauty that he saw in these moments. The former speaks to a time where he wishes he would have just said what he felt, but that doesn’t change how he felt. The latter is about how haunted he feels about the loss of past relationships, but he wouldn’t want to lose the remaining memories. Even in the final moments of “On The News,” Henson still wants to remain a romantic fool. Birthdays is his reminder that the world can still and will hurt him around every corner, but the humanity that comes along with the risk of being fooled into love is the more important gesture to take from this record. While this record might bring up painful memories for most, Birthdays was more a reminder of how finite time is and how there is always something beautiful to extract from the best and worst of our memories.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

Music this personal, this affecting, this vulnerable… it’s hard to talk about. At times, it’s even harder to listen to. My first attempt was on the beach for a long awaited day trip of relaxation. Yet this record is far from soothing. My second attempt was on the way home in the car as I needed a musical jolt to keep my energy up for the two hour drive home. Yet this record is not one to invigorate. What this record actually is is not something I discovered until my third attempt, in the still of night as the days turned over, where not only memories of heartbreak were relived, but also the painful memories of hitting the dark bottom and trying to find light again. What’s touching here is how Keaton Henson’s voice is the light of most songs, but a light that’s dimmed by the severity of his lyrics and the sparse tension of his music. His feathery voice beautifully floats in the space created by the minimal guitar, but it’s a fragile voice on the edge of crumbling after each line even as he becomes more and more musically confident. On “Beekeeper,” perhaps the most brutal song of the record, he sings “Your friends will always just be in your way” before later declaring “All I want is to be left alone.” But utilizing multi-layered vocals in the latter betray this intention, showing that his confidence is only misplaced cynicism, and he is as fractured as ever despite the musical ambition. Followed by “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us,” it shows how easy set-backs can be on the road to emotional recovery. One minute angry, the next minute confident, all to come crashing down with a simple thought. It’s only when he tries a new vantage point, the piano, on album-closer “In The Morning,” that recovery seems within reach and he seems finally aware of his own inner light. The subject matter remains the same, but his voice yearns for more than the morose melodies of the earlier nine songs and even sounds triumphant as he makes his peace with his painful memories. Breakup records are a prosaic fixture in popular music, but few have captured its composite journey like Birthdays does. And even fewer records have someone as artistically gifted as Keaton Henson to tell the tale.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
In Love With Jetts by Antioch Arrow
Chosen By Drew Necci

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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