By: Chris Long
Kathryn Williams | website | facebook | twitter |
Released on June 15, 2015 via One Little Indian
Even those with the most passing of interests in poetry know Sylvia Plath’s story, the tale of a brilliant talent torn apart by her own mind and the stresses of her life who was driven to kill herself, leaving behind a clutch of poems.
She also left a novel, The Bell Jar – a stifling semi-autobiographical tale of desire and mental illness that takes its title from a piece of lab equipment used to create a vacuum – used to explain the central character’s breathless, desperate experience of depression.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams was asked to bring it to life in music. No small task, given the mountains of analysis it has inspired, but unfazed, the singer-songwriter took it on.
The five songs she came up with did more than fulfil the brief – they inspired her to expand her interpretation into a full album. The result is remarkable.
Hypoxia – named after the condition of the body being deprived of oxygen – is a thrilling piece of work. Born of the spirit of The Bell Jar, it is both beautiful and claustrophobic, as quick to rob you of your breath as it is to please your ear.
Some of the credit for that must go to Williams’ producer, Ed Harcourt, whose own skill as a songwriter ghosts far beyond ‘Cuckoo’, the one song he co-wrote. Still, that song is the finest moment, as it underpins a tale about a mother who does not connect with her daughter with Harcourt’s trademark dark dramatic piano and builds into a powerfully understated crescendo of a chorus.
It is not alone in its excellence. From its opening in the haunting and tearful tenderness of ‘Electric’ to its close in the heartbreak country ballad of ‘Part Of Us’, Hypoxia delivers at every turn, spinning in such variety as ‘Battleship’s taut tension, the resigned regret of ‘When Nothing Meant Less’ or ‘Tango With Marco’s unsettling, startling consideration of abuse and misogyny along the way.
Interestingly, it also doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of Plath’s novel to be enjoyed. Those who have read it will recognise the characters and the emotions that drift through the songs, but even the uninitiated will understand the story it tells. And that is the most impressive feat of all.