To listen to the new Keaton Henson album, I knew exactly the position I had to take. My room was dim in the winter lack of morning light, one lamp on, candles burning out, jumper soft, headphones in and play. I knew it would tone my day, welcoming in a sweet melancholy that would be the perfect accompaniment to a plan-less lockdown Friday. And at the end of the day, Keaton Henson really demands surrender. You might say Phoebe Bridgers is the queen of the sad girls, but big time criers know it’s Keaton, the tender soundtrack to your darkest tumblr days.
In my head, Monument is his first album in several years. While Six Lethargies was released in 2019, Keaton’s voice has been absent since his 2016 release, Kindly Now. And honestly, I think a lot of people never expected to hear it again. His surprise 2018 single Epilogue felt like a retirement, one that was almost expected by fans and near-enough confirmed by the lyrics.
Here’s to the words that I’ve sold
Here’s to the cold deep in my bones
Here’s to my door
Here’s to records that no one would pay for
Songs that I’ve wrote and got laid for
Here’s to the floor…
As a long-time fan, I’d grieved and mourned Keaton in his lyrical form. I listened to his orchestral work as a soundtrack to my library sessions, I read about his experimental performances, but the Keaton I really loved, all cracked voice and echoing guitar, he was gone. It was part and parcel of being a Keaton Henson fan, you had to accept two things;
Famously crippled by stage fright, you’ll likely never see him sing live.
He’ll probably quit one day.
Speaking about his experimental performances of Six Lethargies, where he attempted to turn anxiety into a visual and audio experience, Keaton said ‘I’ve always been baffled as to why, just because I write songs, it’s expected of me to perform in front of lots and lots of people.’ He speaks of releasing music as registering a threat, he says he realised that ‘being aware of all those eyes and voices would endanger my ability to make things the way I do’, a reason for the gap in his vocals between 2018 to now.
And clearly, a reason why of course 2020 coaxed him back out. Ask any introvert and they’ll reluctantly admit that 2020 has been kind of great, a haven without the pressure of plans and occasions. So imagine Keaton Henson, finally free from the stress of expectation to perform live, able to write and release music without fear of a press-junket or tour, easily escaping interviews. 2020 let Keaton make music exactly how he wanted to; alone and isolated, at home and for himself.
Monument sounds like that; a testament to his process and how beautifully successful it is. From the first few minutes I took a sign of relief, like when you see your street after a long journey. Opening up the album, Ambulance is reminiscent of early tracks like Charon or Oliver Dalston Browning as the image of him and his guitar returns. But when the chorus hits and a gentle piano comes to join in, you know exactly what you’re in for; Keaton at his musical best, giving us the privilege of hearing these songs that he didn’t make for us, saying clearly that this album wasn’t ‘necessarily for anyone else to hear.’
If I was to describe the album in one word, it’d be comfortable. But that’s not a comment on the music. Monument instead sees Keaton really expand on his previous discography, finally finding a mid-ground between his orchestral compositions and his lyrical pieces as tracks like Prayer and While I Can climax into glorious full-band outros with strings and brass.
I mean that listening to it felt comfortable, like I’d sat back down with an old friend and slipped into deep thorough conversation immediately. Dealing with the topic of nostalgia, grief and childhood, specifically his father’s illness, everything about Monument feels like home, specifically the soft pain of going back to your hometown or packing up a deceased relative’s home, where you can’t help but smile to yourself over how wholesome and tender the hurt is, to the point where maybe it’s not even hurt at all, just a bit tender.
From start to finish, Monument is the best of Keaton Henson. Within the 11 tracks, he showcases the best of each cave and corner of his talent. From classic ballads like Thesis and Self Portrait that feel like soft blankets and red wine, to choppier and darker tracks like Career Day that carry on the legacy of tracks like You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, and topped off with big feeling big sound tracks like While I Can that make all your hairs perk up in a standing ovation. Holding a piece of every album, the simplicity of Dear, the vulnerability of Birthdays, the story telling of Kindly Now and the skill of Romantic Works and Six Lethargies, Monument is his finest work, the culmination of all his talent clearly crafted in his most ideal setting; isolation.
If nothing else, I thank 2020 for this, somehow almost making these most of loneliness worth is now I have a soundtrack for those still to come.