Album Review: Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song

[Smalltown Supersound; 2020]

By her own admission, Kelly Lee Owens has had a difficult few years in her personal life. Going so far as to feel that she didn’t know whether she would be able to make music anymore, the focus on her second album, Inner Song, is on introspection and growth and the results are entirely life-affirming.

To start a record with a cover version, however mutated from the original the final product may be, is a huge gamble – but perhaps one that relays the foundations of the narrative of Owens’ recent past. Everyone who has ever been in a band knows that the initial practice sessions usually revolve around playing with versions of songs that already exist, to not only warm everyone up but to also set a blueprint for the type of musical venture being embarked upon. Here, then, Kelly Lee Owens is using the shield of another’s composition to ease herself back into the process of laying herself bare as a solo performer. And it works magnificently.

“Arpeggi” is a minimalist electro take on “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” by that Radiohead lot who seem so hugely popular for some baffling reason, and it sounds at once familiar and also alarmingly alien. The arpeggiated chords bounce around here and there, and a buzzing bass line holds everything together before clattering drums join the fray. As outlandish a statement as it may seem, this is the track that Thom Yorke has been trying to create for his solo work. It’s a tense opening to the album, and you wonder if this is the mood that will permeate the record.

A few bars of the next song makes you realise it’s not. “On” is a spritely, almost summery track with a yearning lyric as Owens’ voice is both frail and commanding. Her sweetly-intoned vocals fade away at each line’s end, almost implying an air of beautified ethereal resignation, and the overlaying and multi-tracking of the voice brings the splendour of Cocteau Twins to mind, set to a pulsing techno beat that remains subdued until the vocals fade while an oscillating bass elevates the track to a higher state of consciousness where club meets grace. “On” has a gorgeous melancholic feel to it, perfectly balancing Owens’ preternatural ability to meld a beat with the downbeat.

Inner Song shares its time between the propulsive dynamism of dancefloor culture and the entrenched deep-seated honesty and emotional depth of numerous singer-songwriters. Balearic beats abound on the stomping “Melt!” while album closer “Wake-Up” is the antithesis, as its waves of synths wash over the listener while vocals drift in and out of focus. The album ends with just Owens’ voice, repeating the song’s title. Where the opening of the album can be read as a track leaning on others for help to re-state a sense of worth and composure, the record’s narrative cycle resolves with nothing but her voice to show a newfound sense of confidence, optimism and hope. It maybe wasn’t deliberate, but it’s powerful in the context of the backstory of the artist’s personal struggles nonetheless. 

John Cale makes an appearance on “Corner of My Sky”, his deep monotone standing starkly against a background of pulsating bleeps and clicks. It’s a hazy track that meanders pleasantly but lacks the connection to the listener felt elsewhere on the record. There are more immediately-gratifying tracks here – “Jeanette” is a sprung coil of four-to-the-floor beats and whirling synth lines with new melody lines being introduced on top of another to wonderful effect, whilst “Night” is a rush of quirky keys and clattering beats, and “Re-Wild” includes a career best vocal performance from Owens – both exquisite and understated.

Inner Song is an uplifting, joyful and charming album that perfectly combines the heady rush of techno with ‘pop’ sensibilities. Originally delayed as a result of the global pandemic, the album feels like it actually arrived at just the right time, as there is a cautious optimism rather than a hedonistic sense of nihilism at its core. Equal parts sumptuous and subdued, it’s an album that flows seamlessly and possesses an elegant poise at its very essence.