Album Review: Keeley Forsyth – The Hollow

[130701/FatCat; 2024]

Keeley Forsyth’s third album The Hollow immediately reintroduces us to her wondrous vocal instrument, a flat, smooth and forceful sound that she has total dominion over. Even when her words are sometimes obscured by the way she stretches and contorts them, she elicits a visceral reaction purely through her voice’s unsuspecting force and precise shapes. 

On the album’s opening track “Answer”, her voice hooks us in and leads us through a tight passageway of existence where she simply and stoically repeats “We will crawl / We will find an answer”. It’s an ominous opening and welcomes us to the inky shroud that lies over much of the record.

Forsyth’s voice is equally powerful in spoken word, as on “A Shift” where she describes the quotidian act of putting on clothes, the delivery adding weight to the simple movements. The song also features some of her best use of electronics to date, as a slovenly beat and warning synths bolster her speaking voice, which splits and duplicates as she repeats the daily activities. Later, “Drag Me Down” takes us to the other end of the day, when she lays down in bed and waits for “the hours that I know so well to come and search me out / to force my eyeballs skull deep”. Again, micro dashes of electronics and subtly stirring arrangements across the atmosphere add to the effect, allowing us to feel the weight in her leaden limbs. 

“Do I Breathe” is equally powerful in its simple description of a body and mind at the end of their tether; “I feel the weight / turn into darkness” she describes as flare-like synths streak across the atmosphere – “do I die”, she repeats. It’s a continuation of the themes that have lived in her work to date. She has been unfiltered in her explorations of depression and loneliness, with mental illness and lockdown looming over her previous two albums, but she has always brought an undeniable humanity to it all. 

However, on The Hollow, she tips fully into horror in some passages. The title track’s hypnotic refrain “it feeds in the hollow of my mouth” is unsettling, especially in Forsyth’s richly guttural delivery, but it is amplified by its surroundings. An atmospheric beat and haunting arrangement – like a stripped-back Haxan Cloak production – emboldens the message of “there is no help here / not for me”. It’s a skin-crawling terror that is amplified by the yawning echo on her voice and the sudden vocal shift to a desperate near-howl as she cries “shake my life out of my mouth” that works like a jump scare.

Following track “Come and See” is another discomfiting missive, opening with a dramatic din that is met by Forsyth’s desperate cries describing encroaching torment; “there is a bleak dust / that hides in the cracks”. She slowly unfolds economic imagery that suggests an asylum, describing “endless walls” and a “hospital porter whose gripping hands turn to dust”. Her voice is powerful as ever, but she uses it to transmit a weakness, a powerless succumbing to the oncoming insanity, and it’s chilling. The funereal organ that underscores “Horse” is almost ham-fisted in comparison, but Forsyth’s voice is there to match its melodrama as she repeats phrases to the point of obsession, the arrangement growing to a subtly operatic height to underline the mania that is overcoming her.

Having already proven that she has complete mastery of her voice in both acting and singing, Forsyth takes it to new levels on The Hollow, pushed on by arrangements that challenge and accentuate it. Aforementioned highlights such as “The Hollow”, “A Shift” and “Drag Me Down” show that she and her collaborators have found the best way to pair it with electronics, but the most immediately impressive vocal display here is “Turning”, her collaboration with Colin Stetson. 

The Canadian sax powerhouse does not often work with vocalists, but Forsyth proves to be a whole different league of collaborator here. She chooses to duet with his instrument head-on, using her voice to mimic the staccato-yet-flowing babble of brass. Their two breaths become interwoven in a truly hypnotic fashion that only seems to excite and entice Stetson onwards, to goad Forsyth as she paints hypnagogic pictures; “the dust whispers / and shakes the lies / out of the branches”.

Conversely, we have the relative schmaltz of “Eve”, which is the most hopeful song on the album and is in fact a eulogy; Forsyth’s tribute to the woman who raised her, who passed away in early 2023. An elegiac but sparse string arrangement underscores her description of “an air so dreary / even the fittest body would lay its spirit down to die”. But the song doesn’t wallow, the strings rise like sun peeking out from behind the clouds and Forsyth beautifully mewls “Nothing can tear us apart”. The other relative bright spot on The Hollow is “Slush”, which is less successful. She describes children playing in “molten thick slow moving” snow and the maudlin arrangement is seemingly meant to suggest an encroaching worry, but it feels lightweight compared to the rest of the record.

The album concludes with “Creature”, a piano ballad that acts as a round up of what’s preceded it. She recalls the dust that has tormented her on a number of tracks, repeats how the lies were chased out of branches and revisits the hollow of her mouth. Her ultimate message at the end of it all is a return to the idea that “there is no help here / not for me”. It feels like an odd way to end the album, especially considering previous album Limbs concluded with her reaching out from the shadows and asking “who will be my friend / as the day comes to a close”. This time she turns back into the gloom of what’s come before, shunning any potential connection to the outside world. It’s a leaden way to finish, putting a finality to the darkness that has haunted much of The Hollow and leaving us bereft of hope – but she still sounds gorgeous doing it.