Album Review: Keeley Forsyth – Photograph EP

[The Leaf Label; 2020]

It’s simple to assign adjectives to Keeley Forsyth’s sound. It’s stark, gothic, minimal, and ghostlike. But, anyone who gave this year’s debut album Debris more than one listen knows that those words are inadequate. It is all of those things, sure, but there’s a deeper weight to the combination of voice, guitar, and synthesizer. Forsyth’s vocal is the most memorable of all the elements, usually morphing into not only different deliveries and intonations, but entirely new personas and egos. The music holds her up gently and simply, which made Debris one of the finest, albeit understated, debuts of 2020.

Sadly, the new Photograph EP doesn’t have the same elegant dance between music and voice. At four tracks, however, this isn’t a huge problem. Like Debris, it’s bookended with its best songs. The opening title track is a slow-motion reveal of style that newcomers may need. “Our words are the weight of bricks / I couldn’t find you in my arms,” croons a languid Forsyth. Closing out “Photograph” is a four-note twinkle of a melody that only lasts a couple of phrases. It’s in this way you realize how Forsyth effectively withholds melodies; all the pieces are there for her songs to spread out and expand, but this tantric method works incredibly well to the opposite effect.

Second track “Unravelling” doesn’t quite share this quality though, as it sees Forsyth withholding melody to an extreme. Fortunately, the poetry remains impeccable: “My mind is my belly button / thick unravelling to a better place / find a better place.” Whether this is Forsyth herself or another persona, it works. Next is “Glass”, where Forsyth opts for spoken-word delivery. Nick Cave comparisons abound, particularly his “Fireflies” interlude on last year’s Ghosteen, but Forsyth’s voice is so damn good, you’d rather she just sung it. Perhaps if there was a full-length list of tracks to back it up, it’d feel better placed.

Before any disappointment sets in, “Stab” clears the air with the most inventive sonics of the whole EP. Small snare drums literally ‘stab’ into the song’s otherwise astral aesthetic. “Don’t fall into the trap / it’s going to stop / regain control,” warns Forsyth’s lowest register. Close your eyes and the effect is as frightening as it is cinematic (a certain stabbing scene from Ex-Machina would pair perfectly).

The world over knows how difficult it is to follow-up a truly brilliant debut, but Forsyth manages to convey her style well with this short collection. The immediacy (“Start Again”) and mourning (“Look to Yourself”) from the album may be absent, but if you placed Photograph‘s four tracks somewhere into the tracklist, Debris’ relative brevity could blossom out into something greater. However, it’s quite possible that Forsyth wants to keep things as brief as she can; it’s an effective musical method to save us from a 2020 that’s been saturated in too much information, maximalist overreporting, and anxiety. Look to Photograph if you need a release from all this.