Album Review: Anna B Savage – in|FLUX

[City Slang; 2023]

Humanity has touched the moon and smashed the atoms, but still not cracked the code of love. Thousands of thousands of years, sonnets and porn movies, and still we are no closer to get ourselves. Who we are, why we are, is unmistakably lodged within the longing for another that is an other; neither mother father brother, but a reflection of our soul. We strive and struggle, beat and bother us with things that pleasure, pain and smother us and ultimately are alone. And maybe, just maybe, sometimes for a second, something magical happens and we feel perfect and fireworks go off and we feel alive, for a second more than bodies. And then in a second the lights go out and bodies collapse and fall and doors are smashed into locks and holes are punched into walls and clothes are burnt and screams are heard and that is all there is of us: nothing, no one, alone again.

And we lie to us and come up with dumb stuff about hormones and norms and societal structures and formalist bullshit and blame our parents and the sky and god and maybe Love Actually. Someone walks the dog and says out aloud “polyamorous relationship concept” while you walk by and you laugh. Because we can’t forget about the S&M! Yes, that one: sex and magic and hunger and lust and desire, which make all this so much more complicated, and are different and the same and confusing and dumb. We still. don’t. know. the code of love. So we sit down and try to figure out how to at least appoint colours to it.

Fatigued and sad and maybe dying, we write letters, then paint pictures, then convert to catholicism, then quit catholicism, then get into poetry and painting, film a movie (in our head too often, it’s too expansive anyways and Love Actually said it all – no, that was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, damn there are too many movies) and, finally, we write a song, then two and three and five, and we have a record. And we think it says it all, but then somebody laughs at it and we cry, or we get angry (more holes in the wall follow) and lock away the record and there, that’s it, it’s gone.

Because: we are the most vulnerable not when we love, but when we talk about love. Because that reveals ultimately who we are, as we look for that which we perceive ourselves as, often are the opposite of, and reflect on our own desires of this one soul that sees us how we are: More than this. That’s what love has in common with art: make raw materials more than its ingredients. Alchemy, the process of breaking and burning things down so much it becomes a spiritual concept on the path of enlightenment: the philosopher’s stone.

This is all a lot to say the obvious: Anna B Savage‘s in|FLUX is a thorough and climactic and heartfelt and painful journey into expressing the unconscious side of love. Built on the remnants of psychosexual imagery – some found in dreams, some researched in therapy – it finds the Crouch End, London born singer/songwriter crafting an immensely powerful work of tenderness and tension.

When Savage crashed onto life during that long dark lockdown with the instantly iconic debut album A Common Turn, she felt like the odd cross of early Scott Walker and Laura Marling, with a voice wholly her own – literally! The child of two classical singers, that might be expected on paper, but in person it’s a force of nature that can’t be captured by description.

Now, all of those amazing talents explode and come to a head on her new album, in its first five minutes! “The Ghost” is a negotiation with a memory of a bond not broken, a former love that has become part of the self. Like all exorcisms, it’s repetitive, violent, physical. Opening with the recorded recollection of a dream about that person set to throbbing industrial beats, it perfectly exemplifies the cruelty in romance: “I would brush our teeth / Thinking that it was gonna be forever… / But it wasn’t”. From there, it moves into a brutally tender study of longing, brutally honest and intimate: “When a lover speaks to me / I’m scared I’ll say your name / When they’re asleep / With their back facing me / I see your frame”. The years increase with each verse, as Savage’s pleas dissolve into a heart wrenching wail, over and over again: “Stop haunting me, please!”

It’s the kind of opener that claims the room for itself – the sort that will win awards and top year end lists. Still, each track on in|Flux has a soul and heart of its own. The feminine folk song “I Can Hear The Birds Now” is deeply intimate and fragile in its acceptance of being lonely. “Pavlov’s Dog” uses an almost Radiohead-like structure to simulate the pleasure of bodily fluids, rhythmical panting included: “I’m here / I’m waiting / I’m salivating”. It’s a mischievous and joyful song, also a little dark in how egoistic desire can be, but ultimately just as sensual as the breathy electronica of following track “Crown Shyness”. With its clarinets, “delicious things” and purring cat-sample, “Crown Shyness” picks up the theme of the lost love returned in dreams from “The Ghost”, but finds comfort in it.

The title track in turn coldly twists the story: Savage describes dreamed fights and unsatisfying sex, with the track breaking into Moog synthesizers to announce the shift in reality. So much of the album is corporeal that it allows Savage to investigate the differences between the facade and the inner world – where perception and intuition diverge. Is what we show also what we feel? Is what is left unsaid all the more important?

When the sun sets on in|Flux and things get dark is where Savage allows that mask to crack. The whispered “Say My Name” ends with Savage gasping, right before bursting into tears, as she confessed in her track-by-track guide to the album. The song is one long buildup to a grave climax, somehow constantly staying quiet, as if imagined while lying in bed. It’s clear how personal some of these songs are to Savage when she performs them, grimacing, crying, reliving every moment. Which is also the great quality of in|Flux: the eternal conservation of every nuance of expressiveness, memory and remembered dream. 

The record’s B-Side is a little more relaxed and warmer. “Hungry” and “Touch Me” are open and ruminative folk songs – the first a love letter to friends abroad, the latter a flirtation with sex, both testaments to fleeting states of interpersonal exchanges. “Feet of Clay” and “The Orange” express gratitude for and content with being lonely. The former is especially interesting, as its melody, instrumentation and vocal chorus almost conjures images of 1940s hit songs. The latter is a perfectly fitting jazzy piece of melting sugar, serenading the before and anticipating the after: “I’m a bit of a magpie / But I collect memories / Moments that shine just for me”. The heartbeat, sometimes present in the musician’s strumming and then again in gentle electronic drums, never ceases, not for a second.

There’s many ways to love – and all of them are unique. One can love a place, or a friends, or a pet. One can love a state of being, or the wind and ran on skin. One can love one person, and one can love many people. And one can love oneself, actually, even if it is becoming very hard. That’s why sometimes expressing love can be so much more than just saying “I love you”; and why finding forms of expression can be so hard. It’s important to cherish when things fall into place, because they’re wondrous and rare and fragile and over all too soon. in|Flux somehow captures this spectrum of an unknown language, embodies the nameless and dances with rushing heartbeat around many forms and fires of our love. So let’s celebrate these things that Savage has found within herself, because they are within us all, in different names and formations, but they’re there within us, holding us and hoping for a happy ending.