Listening to Keaton Henson’s new album Monument feels a little bit like eavesdropping, as if Henson made it but never intended for it to be heard. Written and recorded during his father’s decade long illness and subsequent death (he died two days before the album was completed), Monument is akin to Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell in its raw and devastating ode to loss. ‘I’m paper thin’ sings the notoriously reclusive Henson, and on Monument, that has never felt so true, with each of these 11 songs bearing witness to his grief.
Henson’s music has always contained a delicate sparseness, centring on acoustic piano or guitar and his intimate, vulnerable vocals. Monument is no different, yet this album marks a progression in arrangement. Henson is joined by Radiohead’s Philip Selway on drums, Leo Abrahams on guitar and Charlotte Harding on saxophone, and together they create carefully constructed soundscapes, compositions that tastefully blend acoustic and electronic elements that grow deeper with each listen. There are organs, hints of synthesizer, pulsing drones and lo-fi electronics that give the songs depth and variety.
Home video audio clips loop in the background evoking childhood and memory while Henson’s vocals at time feel like he is singing the words for the first, and possibly the last time, just for you.
The comforting and confident sounds of opener Ambulance belie the self-doubt at the heart of this record. ‘I’m half a song-writer, half a man, not fully either’ he sings sounding like Jeff Buckley at his most sensitive, while over the organ-infused warmth of Ontario he admits that ‘I’ve had a break in my soul’. Bed, and Thesis sound like songs from his previous albums, with their air of intimate isolation. The Grand Old Reason is almost painful to listen to, as Henson sings to his father ‘I’m just so fucking sorry that you are afraid’. Simply listening brings a feeling that you are trespassing on to private pain.
Centrepiece Prayer is a song of two halves – opening as a piano-led ballad of mournful chords but morphing into an epic orchestral sonic landscape where building strings are interwoven with old recordings of his father’s voice. It would take a listener with the hardest of hearts not to be moved by the closing words of this voice recording saying ‘Keaton, wave to Daddy’.
Monument is at times hard to listen to, as hard as it must have been to write and record, but there are moments when Henson breaks away from expectations. Husk makes dreamy use of the ¾ waltz time signature that is unlike anything he has created before. The thumping and anthemic While You Can channels the anger at his loss into something which sounds not only hopeful, but almost celebratory.
One wonders why the notoriously private Henson would release such a profoundly personal album. However, music is an empathetic tool, able to take the most complex of feelings and render them recognisable. Monument isn’t a depressing record, despite its subject matter – his is a reflective grief and the gentle wisp of Henson’s voice offers a sense of acceptance and inevitability.
On the album closer Bygones as he sings ‘I’m going to live if it kills me’ you feel that he is no longer driven by his loss, but by a sense of creating something beautiful, a monument to the man he has loved and lost and is determined to remember.