The Anchoress - The Art Of Losing review

Art-pop chameleon Catherine Anne Davies hits the (wuthering) heights on luminous, literary second album. Existential torment has never sounded so alluring…

The Anchoress
(Image: © Leona Beth)

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Intense, insistent and often inspired, the second album from The Anchoress shows her, on its cover, literally devouring pages and pages of books. Inside, it’s generously strewn with epigrammatic quotes, from F Scott Fitzgerald (“Nothing any good isn’t hard”) to Fernando Pessoa (“I have wanted, like sounds, to live by things and not be theirs”) to Joan Didion (“There comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead”). As you may have gleaned, this isn’t a glib, throwaway party pop record.  

Yet anybody can try to grab depth by association. Happily – and ultimately there
is a hint of happiness despite the album’s arm-wrestles with angst – The Art Of Losing is rich with its own immersive intricacy and emotions. For all its precision, it feels less considered, less studied than her award-garlanded 2016 debut Confessions Of A Romance Novelist and more physical, more affecting. It stares into the most harrowing caves of loss, illness, pain and death, but comes out alive, its flesh and blood triumphing over the cerebral. 

Written and produced by Catherine Anne Davies (aka The Anchoress), it marks the culmination of a hectic few years for her, with previous collaborations with Simple Minds and Manic Street Preachers already now overshadowed by her fine recent album with Bernard Butler, In Memory Of My Feelings. Closer to home, she’s come through a sea of awful personal troubles, and by opposing, ended them. There’s a sense that creating this candid, confessional, open-hearted album has been a catharsis and coming to terms. By the time it reaches its midpoint, an accumulative atmosphere has engrossed us. We are in this world, as much as observers can be, as if locked into a dark, intriguing film. The vertigo it imposes on us is strangely intoxicating.

Bookended by piano-based instrumental refrains, it lopes in with a great entrance line: ‘Ouch. This is going to hurt’. Let It Hurt, a mid-tempo bruiser, builds subtly, the Welsh artist’s voice dry but yearning. Throughout the album, the vocals are assertive but not overcooked. And when they’re cleverly double-tracked, there’s something almost Bowie-esque about the charge they carry. There’s a crack in that voice, which is, as they say, how the light gets in. This song also unapologetically references ‘existential melancholy’ and ‘narcissistic tendencies’, although if it’s therapy it seems like it might be enormous fun. Shout, shout, let it all out.

The Exchange, presented as a duet with The Manics’ James Dean Bradfield, boasts dazzling keyboard shimmers, and its synth coda is curious and cool (Bradfield very much plays second fiddle here). Show Your Face is a mutant strain of 80s Euro-pop adapted by Depeche Mode or Icehouse, but with slashes and twangs of Anna Calvi-like guitar keeping you apprehensive. Then the title track, loaded with unobvious hooks, quotes poet Elizabeth Bishop while mastering hefty rhythms (Sterling Campbell, former Bowie drummer, guests on this and two other tracks). A relative respite follows, as the mournful Hitchcockian church bells of All Farewells Should Be Sudden flow into the interlude of All Shall Be Well.

Now things get even more fierce, forlorn, yet stubbornly resilient. Unravel moves from Scott Walker chamber pop into a cyclical whirlpool of melodies, before the mysterious half-heard whispers and murmurs of Paris give way to 5AM, arguably the record’s crux. It’s harrowing and hard to take, this track, and for a male reviewer to ‘analyse’ the distressing lyrics would seem bumptious to say the least, but they impact stunningly against a lovely vocal and melody. When we reach the tricky, tenacious My Confessor, we’re beginning to tentatively emerge from the storm into a blazing dawn, only for With The Boys to castigate the pressure on women to emulate someone else’s concept of “perfect”. So there’s no facile third-act resolution here, but everyone who’s taken the inward trip with The Anchoress is stronger and more stoic for having done so. 

While some of the lyrical issues raised are categorically addressed from a female perspective, and mentions of wolves and brides call to mind the sinister anti-fairy tales of the author Angela Carter, it’d be trite to trot through tired comparison points like Kate Bush or PJ Harvey here, much as they probably have a place in Davies’ subconscious. The Art Of Losing is musically diverse, ranging from electronic soundbeds to emo/goth-laced rock tropes, and not limited or aligned to any specific era. And words-wise, it’s frank in somewhat the manner of John Grant or Father John Misty. The power and fortitude fuelling the album, however, come from one artist alone. The Anchoress is exorcising ghosts and exercising rights here, and her creativity and talent are not losing but winning.

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Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.