Album Review: Laura Fell – Safe From Me

[Balloon Machine; 2020]

Looking back on a relationship that has ended can tell us how much we’ve healed. How we talk about the other person – be it with warmth, disdain, or ambivalence – can often speak to how strong the emotional connection still is for a person. London-based musician Laura Fell seems to know this all too well; her quietly stunning and affecting debut album Safe From Me has her dissecting relationships and all the foibles and cracks that can emerge from one’s self during the entry and exit phases of relationships.  

“Did I make you feel alone? / I didn’t mean to,” she reflects over the haunting, quivering synths of “I Didn’t Mean To”. On the other hand, first single “Bone of Contention” finds her much more scathing in her words: “I’ll ask you to spare me / Your bullshit about being betrayed / And to give you the benefit of the doubt / I’ll assume that you lie when afraid,” she quietly seethes, not mincing her words. They’re vicious, but the real cut comes in the final chorus where she declares, “But between me and him / Between he and I / Between us two / The bone of contention is you.” The “you” seems so direct that the listener could be forgiven for thinking Fell is addressing them personally.

That Fell’s lyrics are so considered, measured, and empathetic (where appropriate) makes all the more sense when one learns she is a psychotherapist by day. “I can’t find the answers for myself / It’s easier to help somebody else,” she declares, all too fittingly on album highlight “Cold”. She knows how to reflect with meaning and not descend into mindless self-loathing or hatred; “When people grow I find it hard to feel secure,” she continues on the same song. Later, on “Every Time”, she answers “Well, I’ve definitely been better / but I’m doing fine” to an unheard query about how she’s been doing. This delicacy of self-doubt still finds its way through though; Safe From Me feels deeply human, like notes from a therapy session. She even still manages to insert some wry humour; “Every time a lesson could be learned / I forget to write it down,” she concludes on the aforementioned “Every Time”.

Fell also sets her gaze beyond herself too. On opening track “Glad”, she paints a message of hope for her recently divorced parents, detailing scenes from scenarios like family gatherings and moving out of the family home. This gentle optimism is carried from the words to the music, as pillow-soft waves of wordless vocals and drums lift the track to the clouds, and could well sing all the louder for anyone going through a separation. The song’s final line speaks to the core of Fell’s desires, admiring the way her parents look at the past, present, and future: “I hope you’ll just be glad / For all you have and had.”

Safe From Me reads well lyrically, but its strength lies just as much (if not more so) in the way it sounds. Fell is at the centre of these tracks with her metronome-accurate guitar playing, but the delicate skeleton of her songs are made whole by the timbre of her voice and the production. Additional instruments flavour the mix with delicacy and consideration, added in to accentuate the mood of the song or add more weight when necessary. A country shuffle gives “Every Time” a buoyant feel; the sweet, smooth bass and light brass on “Until Now” elevate it into the air with each successive verse and chorus; and on “Cold” the production is at its best, with lurching Tom Waits-like bass, percussive polyrhythms clattering and tapping away, and electric guitar notes creeping like careful footsteps. Echoes of Laura Marling’s records come to mind with the way the additional instruments and sounds never envelop and never seek to steal the spotlight from Fell herself. With headphones the album becomes all the more intimate and detailed to the ears. That Fell held down three jobs to pay for the array of classical-trained musicians and studio time makes the stakes higher, but certainly worth it when one hears the end result.

Indeed, sometimes the additional instrumentation adds to the story of the songs, increasing the depth of Fell’s words. The way the music waltzes between major and minor chords on “Bone of Contention” adds to the question of where exactly Fell wants to throw the axe she wants to grind. On the title track, there are discordant strains that creak in the background, like fractures hiding just beneath the surface, and as the track progresses over Fell’s clockwork-like guitar work, these noises become melodic and almost harmonious, suggesting a balancing of thought and mind.

“Left Foot / Right Foot” seems a little on the nose at first, using descriptions of steps in dancing to match up to the idea of dancing around the truth, but there’s more at play beneath the surface. The sweet sound of a flugelhorn carries the song to its end, and at first sight it seems like nothing more than a touch of brass to perhaps bring to mind the sound of big band music of the past. But, consider the military association flugelhorns have as instruments of calling to arms, and then the meaning suddenly shifts: it’s no longer a dance the pair are doing, but instead it’s a military march, and it may end up on the battlefield – perhaps they are stepping through the motions to keep up appearances; “I’m still in love until the music ends,” admits Fell (alongside additional vocalist Gus White). 

The main draw of Safe From Me, however, is simply Fell’s voice. A deep alto that brings up comparisons to New Zealand singer Aldous Harding, Fell’s tone and timbre draw your attention immediately. She can usher your entire attention with a simple “ooh” as she does at the end of each verse on “Bone of Contention”, while on closing track “I Didn’t Mean To” she coos with her upper registers like she’s treading on cold, thin ice. The track ends the song and the album on an apologetic note, but the conversation doesn’t feel over – it feels like there’s more to be said, and going by the quality of Safe From Me, it will definitely be worth hearing.