Tilly Foulkes reviews The Art of Losing, the second album from The Anchoress, a sonically ethereal reflection on loss and pain explored through the lens of womanhood.
The second album by Welsh singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist The Anchoress – born Catherine Anne Davies – is a mesmerising sonic collection exploring trauma, grief and pain. Following a few tumultuous years, Davies encaptures the tough intricacies of emotional hardship through ‘80s -inspired melodies and witty, piercing lyrics. Davies takes back control on The Art of Losing – not only did she write it entirely, but she also plays the majority of instruments herself and produced the record independently.
Opening with a slow and sensitive piano instrumental, Davies sets the tone for the album with immediacy. Though melancholic at times, there are bursts of anger and undercurrents of resilience in each song. The first track, ‘Moon Rise (Prelude)’ serves as a soft opening reflection; a moment of tranquillity before the eruption of emotions that follow. It eases the listener in gently. The second track, ‘Let It Hurt’, then sets up for the looming emotional whiplash: ‘Ouch! This is going to hurt.’ This manifesto-like opening line serves as a warning; we are in for a harsh 53 minutes. The Anchoress doesn’t shy away from showing her impressive vocal range here, and every note is heaped with emotion – paired with her biting lyrics she is reminiscent of Tidal-era Fiona Apple; forcing you to pay attention to what she is saying and what she is feeling. The outcome is a consuming experience that incites a full-body emotional reaction.
It is also clear that the music of collaborators Manic Street Preachers has influenced this album. Spatterings of space-like electronic beats are reminiscent of those used on the Manics’ 2014 album Futurology. The Anchoress also adopts their tradition of interweaving literary references, with the album’s title – The Art Of Losing – coming directly from an Emily Bishop poem. Davies herself has a PhD in English Literature; given this, it’s hardly surprising that her lyrics are so often poetic and astute. On third track, ‘The Exchange’, Davies features Manics’ frontman James Dean Bradfield, blending two compelling Welsh voices to portray an escalating back-and-forth of bitterness and sorrow. Davies has a knack for using her voice to tell a story so evocative you feel like you’ve personally experienced it. Still, her vocals never outshine the music – which is dark and cinematic, often reminiscent of a horror film score – giving the duet a tense, gothic vibe.
‘Show Your Face’ is a notable highlight – an alt-pop synth bop that features Bradfield on guitar. It tackles toxic masculinity and the abuse women so often face at the hands of men. Davies doesn’t shy away from her resentment, she spits: ‘you’ve got a nerve to show your face / in light of what you did.’ The chorus rings with urgency and fury between quiet verses of slow-burning rage. Its sentiment and sound echo Courtney Barnett’s 2018 single ‘Nameless, Faceless’, (though ‘Show Your Face’ is arguably easier to dance to).
The album approaches cruelty and pain unflinchingly – Davies’s lyrics are as unapologetic as they are truthful and raw. In ‘5AM’, a fragile track about rape, the experience of listening is completely immersive. Davies’s lingering voice is accompanied by an elegant piano melody as she depicts dripping blood and the inability to speak. In moments like this, The Art of Losing is transfixing – Davies describes a disgusting ordeal in such a compelling way that, despite its horror, we must keep listening. It’s here that her work as a producer really shines, the music invoking a cold understanding that elevates the lyrics and imbues them with heightened emotional poignancy.
Musically, Davies make the most of a keen ear for classical instrumentalism with layered string sections and looped cellos scattered throughout. The twin piano interludes similarly showcase this classical flair, while also offering breathing space around the edges of a turbulent record (they are also aptly named –‘Moon Rise (Prelude)’ and ‘Moon (An End)’ – with twinkly melodies which sound mystical and lunar).
The Art of Losing accomplishes a huge feat. The Anchoress owns her music and her words, and by extension her experiences and her stories. The album is sonically ethereal, but the lyrics are deeply rooted in reality and the ugliness of grief. No difficult topics are evaded, no feelings are left unexplored; she invites to not only hear what she’s saying, but to feel it, too. With an album as exquisite as this, how could we not oblige?
Tilly Foulkes tracks a journey of national identity – from her initial rejection of Wales to her final embracing of it – through the music and lore of the Manic Street Preachers.
The Art of Losing is available to stream on Spotify now.