KEATON HENSON- ‘Romantic Works’

I did not see this coming. I mean, I guess no one did. ‘Romantic Works’ is something of a surprise, see. A surprise, in that celebrated singer-songwriter Keaton Henson released it last week without warning or fanfare. And a surprise, in that it doesn’t actually feature any singing, or traditional songwriting. Instead, Henson has combined patient piano, solemn strings, found sounds, and sombre ambience to create a sparsely populated, entirely instrumental, neo-classical record. And, perhaps, impossibly, even more than his usual output, he has done it to truly compelling effect. 

‘Preface’, as its name suggests, sets out Henson’s newest stall. It’s a wordless, wistful beginning that goes from electric hum to beautiful bustle, like the thrum of an orchestra warming up, and back again. It’s atmospheric stuff. It is not, however, suitable preparation for what comes next. ‘Elevator Song’, might be simply named and whisper-quiet but it will stop you in your tracks. A repeating piano motif (almost like arrival ‘ding’ of an elevator) slowly blends into layered, melancholy strings and builds until you can’t think about anything else. To me it sounds tense and anxious but also resigned, and somehow reassuring too. Like the best instrumental music though, it leaves plenty of space for your own interpretation. As it fades away, it’s tempting to check the song’s credits to confirm that, yes, this is definitely the work of Keaton Henson, not a more distinguished modern composer.

If it’s not clear already, ‘Romantic Works’ is less of a radical departure in terms of Henson’s usual mood palette. ‘Healah Dancing’ is flush with long, yearning notes (it also sounds like a movie soundtrack I can’t place, or its maybe it’s just crying out to be placed into one), ‘Josella’ brilliantly balances feelings of splendour and dread, and whether ‘Earnestly Yours’ is about finding love or losing love or desperately trying to understand love, it could break your heart. The bird song samples in ‘Field’ fit with Henson’s existing earthy vibe, and the cello (provided throughout the record by Ren Ford) in ‘Elevator Song’ almost sounds like its crying or wailing, or even singing. It doesn’t feel romantic at all.

This would be gripping stuff if produced by a seasoned professional, but Henson only recently taught himself the arts of orchestration and arrangement. And he composed and recorded the whole thing at home using found objects and instruments bought from charity shops. ‘Romantic Works’ isn’t just one of the albums of the year, it’s a feat. Perhaps the biggest surprise, is just how good this is.

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