Here is a singer-songwriter confessional that blasts new energy into the genre. Violently resistant to any cliché, the entire album walks a tightrope between the accessible and avant-garde: unflinching, uncompromising and ultimately unforgettable.
Georgia Train has already built up a rich back catalogue. I first heard her music as one half of duo Bitter Ruin with guitarist Ben Richards. Placing stagecraft hand in hand with songcraft, Bitter Ruin were particularly memorable live, not simply ‘acting’ in personas as such, but using propulsive, confrontational movement to heighten the drama inherent in the songs. Since going solo, Train has already made several EPs (including a collaboration with Mishkin Fitzgerald) and a superb album based around piano and voice, ‘I do’.
This latest album, however, is something else. Bitter Ruin had harnessed social media and crowd-funding to establish an intimate, affectionate connection with their fanbase, and Train kept up that relationship, building support for the new record through Patreon. So those of us following her career knew that she was working up to her first fully-produced collection of songs – already an enticing prospect.
But real life cruelly intervened, in the form of infertility, miscarriage, and all the pain, depression and despair they bring. It’s to Train’s credit, I think, not only to go public on these issues but also to channel them so unsparingly into the work. And, without diminishing those personal tragedies in any way, the songs have so much appeal, are so successfully expressive, that you will want to play them repeatedly and – yes – enjoy them.
Lyrically, the songs are eloquent and arresting. It’s hard to imagine a more skilfully economical way to mesh the mental and physical anguish than these lines from the title track: “And I’m empty in head and heart / Empty in belly and arms / Breath and tongue”. Add to this an astonishing couplet from ‘Growing Pains’: “Made a little space for you / Now it’s a hole I’m gazing through”.
However, there’s no danger of being dragged into some kind of conceptual mire – Train is an accomplished, nuanced songwriter who expands the themes (particularly of relationship trauma) into universally known and understood experiences: communication breakdown, reliance on friendships, barely controlling repressed emotions, feeling misunderstood… listeners are likely to nod as much in recognition as in time to the music.
And the music is spectacular, thanks to some special ingredients, and one major overall coup de grace that I think underlines the album’s excellence. To begin with, Train has ‘non-performing’ experience, working in the background as a vocal and songwriting coach, as well as penning tunes for other artists. As such, she is immersed in song and at times on this record, it feels like she has fully absorbed several decades worth of genre styles and bent them entirely to her own ends.
For example, the fluid agility of the melody in ‘Knew Me Too Well’ has the ‘bounce’ of a showtune, married to a glam stomp. Massed vocals decorate the likes of ‘Lover’, ‘I’m Coping’ and the remarkable a cappella ‘Reservoir’ – you might hear quick phrases reminiscent of 10cc distance, Queen grandeur or Kirsty MacColl intimacy, but Train can suggest all or none of these characteristics and turn the mood on a dime.
I was captivated by the warp and weft of the backing vocals on the aforementioned ‘Growing Pains’ which give the song so much of its otherworldly quality. Kate Bush came to mind here – obviously, I’m aware it’s potentially lazy to compare any innovative female singer to Bush, but bear with me, I have specifics. I’m thinking of the way Bush used the Trio Bulgarka on the album ‘The Sensual World’ to make the tracks somehow harmonious and alien. ‘The Who’ might begin by suggesting an Elton John piano vamp but by the time it blooms in full, you have a fabulous exercise in coiled-spring tension – it reminded me (the approach, not the song) of Elvis Costello’s ‘Beyond Belief’ – the release never quite comes as you imagine.
I’m mentioning a number of other artists here, but these are reference points only – a way of conveying how I feel this album reflects ‘the pantheon’, so to speak, in its range of techniques, and how Train’s mastery of those techniques makes her music so accessible. But does she ever sound like any one of these particular artists? No.
Partly this is down to another of those ingredients that I referred to – her voice. At a relaxed setting, there is a gentle sensuality to the sound; delicacy, warmth. But she can do almost anything with it, demonstrating a huge range not just of pitch, but volume and timbre. At times, her performance is fully extreme: if it serves the song – and remember, there are howls of hopelessness and rage here – she is prepared to sound brutal, ugly, terrifying even. But these moments of heightened drama are carefully chosen, with discipline. No vocal acrobatics for their own sake: in each case, you are guided towards it, no cheating, and the emotional journey you make alongside her feels perfectly natural.
Finally – the overall aspect that, to me, really makes the album fly, is its sonic integrity. Working with producer Chris Stagg, Train has made a record that manages to embed its themes into the way it actually sounds.
There’s a definite flow to the album, and many tracks, particularly towards the front and back of the running order, feature some kind of electronic element, be it a drone, a pulse or even white noise. This is always a tool of disruption, breaking into the acoustic elements of the song and carrying it along in its wake. The atmosphere generated by these electronic ruptures reminded me of the hum of machinery and I instantly thought of instruments invading the body. We hear danger rupturing normality, chaos fracturing stability. (It feels a little like spoilers to name some of these songs before you hear them – suffice to say that in one example, ‘Summer Song’, prepare for storms as well as sunshine.)
When Train’s persona in the songs assumes more power and takes a more forthright role, these electronic elements are more tamed and the more personal acoustic dominates (for example, in the middle pairing of ‘Pain Beneath the Best’ and ‘She Knows You’). Some of the most exquisite songcraft appears where these aspects are held in balance – for example, the closing section of ‘Lover’, where the serene vocal promises support over the sudden mayhem in the arrangement (the drumming throughout the album is immense) or the battle between major hope and minor despair in ‘Growing Pains’.
This is a controlled explosion of an album, then – dealing as much with the impact of bottling up the pain as letting it flood out. It takes you to some dark places, for sure, but shines some much-needed light on them. Bold, engaging, ambitious and brilliantly realised.
Georgia Train’s music is available directly from her Bandcamp page: https://georgiatrain.bandcamp.com/music
All visuals (photo and video) are by Scott Chalmers Photography.