Album Review: Aoife Nessa Frances – Protector

[Partisan; 2022]

Some records have their very creation fused into their sound. Protector, the second album from Irish artist Aoife Nessa Frances, is one of these sublime creations. The first sketches of the songs were written in “the magic hour before the world wakes up” and later recorded in a tiny cabin near the Irish coast where Frances and her collaborators Brendan Doherty and Brendan Jenkinson would rise each day for an early morning swim before getting to work. The result is an album that captures the start of a new day: it is full of blossoming potential, emerging realisation and subtly expansive sonic beauty.

Scaffolded by slow-moving drums, elegantly sashaying synths and contemplative guitar, these songs carve an image of a soul coming to terms with itself. The remotely added instrumentation from Ailbhe Nic Oiroictaigh (strings), Meabh McKenna (harp) and Conor O’Brien of Villagers (horns) adds vivid colour, and all of it brings steady, measured breath to Frances’ words, whose rich, revealing voice ebbs naturally on the crest of it all.

While Frances might sound composed and at peace across Protector, the words often reveal turmoil; these songs document her lessons and journeys to reaching this point of zen. “Way To Say Goodbye” is her saying a silent farewell to an ex, accepting that they’ll soon be moving on to someone else, as hard as that might seem. “Emptiness Follows” is about the gradual drifting away from a friend, and Frances makes that void sound deep – but gorgeously so, with flecks of harp and subtle horn reflecting back the emptiness. “Only Child” is Frances actively distancing herself from someone, telling them “all your love can’t be enough this time” while violins reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s debut album bring a slight air of friction to the overall transfixing and overwhelmingly voluptuous instrumental surrounding.

While the ostensibly recurrent theme is relationships ending, the overall feeling from Frances is not of loss, but of having found a truer version of herself. This is further examined on “Chariot”, the album’s most overtly boisterous song, where she relishes time spent with her family and friends and the freedom provided by that love. Her inclusion of minute details – dark leaves, back roads, hands in pockets – makes the sensation of being held all the more tangible. Later, on “Soft Lines”, she’s yearning to get closer to someone, but she still sounds self-possessed as she sings about “meeting your fears at my eyeline”, knowing well that her own natural gravity will be enough to pull this person into her orbit, if it is what’s meant to be. 

And indeed it’s Frances’ presence, which has grown enormously since her 2020 debut Land of No Junction, that makes the album really hum and sparkle. Her voice is no longer just a feature of the songs, it is the centrepiece; her words are no longer just a curiosity, their truths are her reason for creating the project – and in turn for listeners to return to it. She has found a way to go beyond merely soothing; she nourishes her soul with each word uttered, building herself up into the titular Protector. This is the sound of her new day dawning, and it’s a wonder to behold.