Back in 2013, singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams was commissioned to write something for the Durham Book Festival’s celebration of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, the American poet and writer, whose only novel – The Bell Jar – was published fifty years previously. Anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety or depression – and that’s as many as one in five of us, according to the Office for National Statistics’ Measuring National Wellbeing programme – may well have somewhat mixed feelings about The Bell Jar: there’s no denying its sheer power or its deserved reputation as one of the classics of modern literature, but its semi-autobiographical descriptions of aspects of some of Plath’s experiences with clinical depression and suicidal ideation often make for harrowing reading. Nevertheless, Kathryn’s re-reading of the book inspired her to develop the Book Festival project further until, a year or so later, she was ready to go into the studio with friend and collaborator Ed Harcourt, to record her new album Hypoxia.
The listener finds herself thrown in at the proverbial deep end with the first track, Electric, a reference to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It’s a method which is still in use today, albeit as a last resort, to induce seizures in the hope of providing some relief from major depressive states and, like many forms of medical intervention, has supporters and opponents. While Plath, through the novel’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, was highly critical of psychiatric medicine, Kathryn’s lyric manages to avoid becoming drawn into that debate and settles for an atmospheric and descriptive composition where time and space seem slowed down and drawn out, eerily conveying a sense of woozy detachment to a distant backing of treated electric guitar over a gentle acoustic guitar.
Second track Mirrors examines one of the recurring motifs of the novel; more often than not Esther believes her own reflection to be that of someone else. This is generally taken to be a cipher for her own internal struggle for self-identity in a world from which she feels increasingly alienated. The looped vocals and colliding, fragmentary guitars, interspersed with short phrases on piano and bass, mixed way upfront, mesh and combine to produce a piece which is a dramatic if unsettling listen.
Battleships seems to be an oblique reference to Plath’s poem Epitaph In Three Parts which shares with The Bell Jar certain imagery and metaphor: mirrors, fickle lovers, blood, isolation and so on, but may also draw inspiration from the well-known guessing game. Kathryn’s lyric seems to refer as much to the novel’s recounting of the failed relationship between Esther and Buddy Willard as it does to Esther’s own relationship with the world and the mind games we all, to some extent, play; trying to second-guess each other as well as ourselves and the events of our lives. The tension is almost palpable, due in no small part to the use of the slow ‘tick tock’ of a mechanical clock in the arrangement.
Cuckoo, which was recently premiered here at FRUK, is one of the record’s highlights. A simple keyboard part grounds the gorgeous harmonies of Kathryn and co-writer Ed Harcourt in this song, written from the point of view of Esther’s mother who, despite her almost invisible part in the novel, still plays a hugely important part in Esther’s life. Kathryn’s lyric brings the character to life in a way that gives the listener pause for refelection on the effect that the unconditional love of a parent may have on a child.
Another of the record’s highlights, Beating Heart takes a retrospective, first person look at how Esther’s numerous attempts to end her life have always been foiled by her body. The will to survive that invariably proves stronger than the wish to die calls to mind Antonio Gramsci’s quote, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, which seems oddly pertinent here, albeit out of context. It’s a reflective composition whose lush, mulitracked vocal hook – “I am, I am, I am” – comprises the words that Esther imagines her heart to be speaking during her attempt to drown herself. There’s a huge sense of space in the song which, combined with the distant piano, creates some very evocative mental pictures of the hospitals in which the character of Esther spent so much time.
A key catalyst in Esther’s mental illness is her struggle to survive in circumstances which are unbearably oppressive, and her relationships with others, particularly men, seem to play a major part in this. One of the most powerful passages in The Bell Jar describes Esther’s horrific experience on a blind date with a violent misogynist called Marco who, having forced her to tango then attempts to rape her; an episode which Esther’s detached recounting makes all the more frightening. Tango with Marco captures the suffocating mood of menace through a combination of Jon Thorne’s rattling, echoey bass and various treated sounds swirling around the edges of the mix like the encroaching darkness.
The confessional When Nothing Meant Less is – I think (although I’m by no means certain) – a comparison between Esther and Joan, her acquaintance in hospital, of the similarities in the ways their illnesses have affected them and a recognition of how the process of healing, of learning to manage severe mental illness, is never a simple open and shut case. Rather, it’s ongoing, and the negotiations and compromises we make affect the course of our lives in different ways at different times. Certainly there are commonalities: in The Bell Jar, the difference between Esther’s expectations in life and its harsher realities are crucial to gaining an understanding of the origin of her illness; this dissonance still exists in the world today and is felt no less keenly by many mentally ill people. Kathryn brings a hugely empathic approach to the subject in When Nothing Meant Less and the sparse arrangement – Kathryn’s vocals are high in the mix, over acoustic guitar and a distant, glittering, treated electric guitar – is judged to perfection.
With a more upbeat, major key arrangement, The Mind Has Its Own Place sends out a supportive message to any woman who finds herself on the receiving end of the inherently sexist and implicitly violent values of patriarchal society. This is something that informed the 1950s America of The Bell Jar and which still persists today. Then, as now, women are bombarded with conflicting messages: be a good student (as Esther was) and you’ll face ridicule for not dating handsome boys; but if you date too many, then you’re clearly a slut. The fight against these entrenched double standards, and the countless others that women experience each and every day, was undeniably a key factor in Esther’s (and Plath’s) illness and Kathryn’s lyric is a timely reminder that if we truly seek liberation then we all, regardless of gender, need to support each other in the fight against the crushing weight of the impossible demands and expectations of patriarchal society.
The short but sweet, Country-tinged Part of Us rounds out the album, its arrangement as comforting as its lyrical refrain that “loneliness was never a part of us”. It brings the record to an appropriately quiet, reflective conclusion, in the same way that The Bell Jar leaves the reader feeling that a particular chapter of Esther’s life has ended, with the subtext that protagonist and reader are ready and willing to move on with their lives. And, while that may be true to some extent, in life as in mental illness there are no guarantees – as Esther asks in the final chapter of The Bell Jar:
“How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
Theming an album around a book as intense as The Bell Jar was never going to be an easy task but to her credit, Kathryn Williams has brought great sensitivity and empathy to her writing of the nine songs on Hypoxia. The result is a fine collection of contemporary folk songs which can be enjoyed at face value but which, on deeper listening, reveal an intelligent and thoughtful reevaluation of one of modern literature’s greatest novels, as well as an unflinching look at the huge impact that severe depression can have on an individual and those around them.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Hypoxia is released on 15 June 2015 via One Little Indian
Wed 20th May – JW3, London
Wed 10th June – Leaf, Liverpool
Thur 11th June – Old Cinema Launderette, Durham
Wed 17th June – The Black Swan, York
Thur 18th June – The Burgess Foundation, Manchester
Fri 19th June – The Victoria Theatre (Green Room), Halifax
Sun 21st June – The Voodoo Rooms (Speakeasy Bar), Edinburgh
Wed 1st July – The Kitchen Garden Café, Birmingham
Thur 2nd July – Octagon Chapel, Norwich
Fri 3rd July – Ramsgate Music Hall, Ramsgate
Sat 4th July – The Folk House, Bristol
Wed 8th July – The Green Note, London
Thur 9th July – Cluny 2, Newcastle upon Tyne