The Anchoress is a Welsh-born, English-raised producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist named Catherine Anne Davies. Hardly a household name, it comes as a shock to learn just how deep her roots go in the music business – as a classically-trained orchestral flautist, her technical credentials are beyond reproach, while as a singer she guested on the Manic Street Preachers’ 2018 album Resistance Is Futile and on The Pineapple Thief’s single Fend For Yourself; as a presenter she has worked alongside actors Martin Freeman and John Simm. She was in Simple Minds for two albums, and has played with the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. In addition, she has achieved a PhD, is a writer and interviewer and music producer to boot. Having recorded various singles and EPs under her own name, the first full-length Anchoress album, Confessions Of A Romance Novelist, was delivered in 2016, and this March saw the second album release, entitled The Art Of Losing, the title taken from a line in a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. In those intervening years though, life has taken its toll on The Anchoress; the grief of losing her father to a brain tumour exacerbated by a diagnosis of cervical cancer and multiple miscarriages.
They say you should write about what you know, so during what she calls ‘an abysmal time’, she has found catharsis in writing her grief and trauma into her songs. At the root, her style will be familiar to fans of later Kate Bush works and Tori Amos, with references to other notable British acts, but listener beware – the lyrical content does not make for an easy listen. Fortunately for those of a sensitive disposition, her vocal style is blurred and laconic, highly musical compositions overlaid with slurred lines, her words often dipping into croaking final syllables.
The Art Of Losing is punctuated by a number of short, instrumental pieces, starting with Moon Rise (Prelude), a downbeat, melodic piano piece accompanied by violin and cello. The first song is entitled Let It Hurt, which gives fair warning of what is to follow, and after three minutes, we are steeled for the approaching emotional outpouring by the album’s first words, “Ouch, this is going to hurt.” It’s not a downbeat song though, and fans of Tori Amos will be in their element. One of Davies’ idols, James Dean Bradfield from The Manic Street Preachers duets on current single The Exchange, which despite being another piano-backed ballad, owes something in mood and texture to symphonic metal – add some deep, distorted guitars and it could be Nightwish or Epica. As it is though, guitars are noticeably lacking in this set, with piano and a stripped-down string section taking centre stage, backed by plenty of ambient keyboard layers and sound effects.
Continuing the somewhat Gothic vibe is the heavily All About Eve-influenced Show Your Face, in which the percussion comes more to the fore with a big kick drum backing. As previously mentioned, the slurred, sedated vocal style has kept the subject matter at bay to some degree, but from this point on it jumps out of the speakers with more insistence, accompanied by some truly atmospheric melodies. The title track judders into existence as if the tape was switched on slightly too late, the more up-tempo rhythm backed by tribal drums and some unfamiliar instrumentation. “Was there some purpose to losing my mind?” she inquires, along with the exhortation to “get a hold of yourself.”
All Farewells Should Be Sudden adds yet more layered keyboards and the first noticeable flute, ending on church bells which lead into the second instrumental interlude – basically a cut-down reprise of the opening piece, but played in a different key and with different accompaniment and subtle snippets of speech, just eluding the ear. This is followed by Unravel, which explores issues of self-worth with the repeated line, “If you don’t want me then I don’t want me.” Davies reportedly recorded the vocals while locked in a cupboard to convey the necessary sense of claustrophobic desperation.
Another instrumental piano segment follows, the two-minute, enigmatically-named Paris, in which several voices can be heard making dark utterances from different places in the stereo pan, again just too quietly to pick up the meaning. And this is followed by, to me, the beating heart and soul of the album, the insomnia-soaked 5am. Actually the first song to be played in a major key, it sounds like a lifting of the spirits, until the lyrics start reminiscing about a regrettable intimacy in a hotel room, then drift back to the age of 14 and a sexual assault, which seems to be connected to the present, in which oozing blood and an inability to communicate figure heavily – honestly, I won’t delve any deeper than that into the lyric, but it is disturbing, beautiful and horrific in equal measure.
The Heart Is a Lonesome Hunter features an intro of guitar arpeggios for a change, followed by The Confessor, which could have risen straight from the Radiohead songbook. With The Boys could certainly be late-era Kate Bush, dealing with the difficulties women face when intruding into male-dominated industries such as musical production, although the child voices underlying the intro and outro indicate that it has always been that way since infancy. The intro piece then returns as an outro under the title Moon (An End). Again, a male and female voice can be heard conversing, giving the uncomfortable impression that the whole set has been a musical interpretation of a session on a psychiatrist’s couch. Just at the end – right at the end, as the last note is played, it is possible to make out the words, “For once in your life – just let it go…” And there, at last, is the sense of relief, the wash of hope. Available on CD or double vinyl, if this session at the shrink’s helped The Anchoress unload some of her burden, hopefully it can do the same for similarly anguished souls.