Album Review: Penelope Trappes – Penelope Three

[Houndstooth; 2021]

Penelope Trappes may have been born in Australia but it makes more sense that she’s now based in the UK once you hear her new album, Penelope Three. Its discomfiting and harrowing beauty belongs to this land of grey and quiet: standing on a pier, facing the stark coldness of the seaside; traversing green fields, trying to get home before the mist descends upon the moors.

Unsurprisingly given its title, Penelope Three is the final chapter in a deeply personal triptych, following 2017’s Penelope One and 2019’s Penelope Two. The ambitious trilogy of works explore the movement between birth, death and rebirth, an artistic rumination on motherhood and femininity. Penelope gave birth to her only daughter 19 years ago, meaning that she’s had to contend with the fractious experience of being a working musician and a mother at the same time; hardly an easy thing, particularly when it could be perceived wrongfully as a weakness in an industry that is dominated by men. The third chapter of the trilogy was made amidst the impending departure of her daughter, who left home earlier this year. This act signalled the death of the most significant period of Penelope’s life; what she realised through this record, though, is that healing was possible through acknowledging that her life is in no way over, that she can find rebirth.

Penelope lets her vocals dominate on this third chapter more than she did on the previous two. They’re at once angelic and ghostly, whispered and wailed. The instrumentation affords her range to be unveiled (she used to sing in a church choir and also studied opera later in life), for its often stark and bare, emphasising (as does the album cover, featuring an image of the naked Penelope) a sense of unwavering commitment to the process of rebirth and healing.

“Oh little one you’ve come from long ago / Observe us all and watch it fall,” she whispers in the first track “Veil”, after field recordings of seaside and seagulls plays. It’s an ominous opening and its follow-up, “Nervous”, betrays a further sense of a disquiet existing between mother and daughter: “I’m nervous / When you stare into my eye / I’m nervous / Always there inside my mind.” The anxious electronic texture encloses the narrative, capturing the overwhelming enormity of motherhood.

The atmosphere exists with an unnerving sense of destiny and discovery throughout. Haunting and scratching strings caress “Forest” and “Halfway Point”, always hinting at something bigger to come. “Fur & Feather”, with mainly a tenderly-pressed piano for accompaniment, is a tale of self-autonomy and self-renewal inspired by both Celtic mythology and the departure of her daughter, connected to something deeper from the past and the future.

Penelope’s talent in varying genres and styles is also noticeable. There’s subtle electronica, simmering jazz, and spooky dream pop. Cocteau Twins are as equal an influence, it seems, as Grouper. The beats in “Red Yellow” and “Blood Moon” are distinctly trip-hop. And, in spite of the overarching bareness of the album, there’s a subtly cinematic quality to some of the songs: the ethereal and ponderous “Northern Light” and the sonorous and triumphant “Awkward Matriarch” are blessed with a fuller sound, although the latter ends the record with a return to sparseness, all sound filtering out, replaced by just the howl of an unsettling and eerie wind. This is an album, after all, that revels in quietude.

There is great sadness here – witnessing your only daughter leave to live the next chapter of her life will always be a sorrowful event – but there’s also clear hope. Now in her 40s, the album is the sound of Penelope pushing back, deciding that the closing of motherhood is not the end of her life. She’s confident and resolute in spirit and vision. It’s art defined by ageing and it’s all the more powerful for it.