Album Review: Hilary Woods – Birthmarks

[Sacred Bones; 2020]

From the opening moments of Birthmarks, the latest release from Irish singer and former JJ72 member Hilary Woods, it becomes abundantly clear that this is a record made for total submersion of sensation. These songs aren’t necessarily looking for aggressive engagement, nor are they content to simply entertain your passing attention – they are instead interested in expressing a series of immersive catharses, anchored by haunting strings, droning tones, and warped vocals. You settle into these sounds rather than simply confront them, even as Woods herself combs through devastating experiences and revelations that shape the appearance of the notes as they tumble and stretch and contort in fascinating ways.

Recorded while she was heavily pregnant and traveling between Oslo and Galway during the winter of 2019, these songs explore the volatile emotions that come from impending motherhood as well as the complicated path to finding a sense of self while acknowledging the looming responsibility of a child. This knotty tangle of sensations and experiences are ensconced within an atmosphere of social and personal upheaval. Opening track “Tongues of Wild Boar” is a bit of moody thunder, filled with thudding percussion, bowed strings and Woods’ haunting vocals. It sets the stage perfectly for the emotional whirlwind that’s quickly approaching.

There are moments of tranquility strewn across this album, such as the gorgeously expressive opening of “Orange Tree” or the subsuming drones of closer “There is No Moon”. Even within these tracks, however, she finds a way to examine a series of potent revelations. But this is not a conversation; she doesn’t want our input – we are simply witness to her struggle, with all the hardships, bruised euphoria and the occasional spells of rejuvenation flooding into our bloodstream. Birthmarks feels a bit like an exorcism, a sloughing off of negative feelings and emotional hesitancy, though there are still consequences to deal with as she directs her thoughts around these wounds and the complications of their specific fallout.

“Through the Dark, Love” dabbles in distortion and strings before easing into the twilight glow of a noise-pop soundscape. “Mud and Stones” is more severe and ghostly, sounding as if Woods simply set up a recorder in the attic of some great house and captured the spirits in their nightly routine. These are darkly stylish songs, grounded throughs the beats of an injured heart but still hopeful that some stray light might soon reflect upon its tired muscles. It’s not all catastrophe, though, as she uses these sounds to explore her own sense of renewal in the face of peripheral and substantive adversities.

Birthmarks provides a considerable acreage for Woods to dissect these complex and conflicting ideas. Visceral in its examination of self and how we come to rationalize this fluid concept, it’s an album that embraces the reality of the world in which we live and the obstacles that stand in our way regardless of our particular aims. It’s a profoundly empathetic collection of songs that offers both gentle reminders and harsh overtures as to the effort it takes to sustain healthy mental and physical spaces in your life. Woods has given us unparalleled access to see how she responds to the things that have kept her up at night and to those things which evoke happiness in her world. And though Birthmarks offers no universal answers to the complications driving these mixed anxieties and serenities, it does provide a starting point for our own private studies.