In My Garden
Isobel Anderson's accomplished third album straddles the line between darkness and light
Isobel Anderson's relationship with Belfast is affectionate, to say the least. She only arrived here a few years ago after spending her formative years in Lewes, East Sussex and then living in London, where she tried in vain to penetrate the city's heaving music scene. But, as she said in 2011, it was when she moved to Belfast that 'everything fell into place'.
It was study that brought Anderson to Belfast – she completed a Master's degree, followed by a PhD, at Queen's University's Sonic Arts Research Centre, and recorded her debut album there in 2010. Cold Water Songs put her on the map within Belfast's hiving folk and singer-songwriter scenes – audiences and peers were captivated by her haunting vocals and a playful, intimate take on the English folk tradition. Radio play and press interviews duly followed, as they did for its follow-up, the more pop-oriented Dark Path.
Now, after an extended stay in England, Anderson is back in Northern Ireland with her third album, In My Garden, and the love affair with Belfast is writ large from the very first song, 'Botanical Romance', with its references to (yes) Botanic Gardens, 'the city market' and our inclement weather.
On first listen, the song is delightful but rudimentary, a tale of romance set to gently strummed guitar and keening violin. But, once Anderson intones, 'So I guess I'll come clean', the song pulls the rug from under your feet in rather a clever way. I won't spoil it, but it's early evidence that Anderson is a songwriter who likes to defy convention.
The album's first single, 'Gentleman', is a vehicle for Anderson's sense of humour, as she sets about wooing the well-bred chap of the title with a heavy dose of irony. 'Pour me another cup of tea,' she exclaims in the chorus. 'Load up my scone with some cream. I need a gentleman… You're a gentleman.' It's cheeky and coquettish and, it must be said, the most quintessentially English song this side of 'Knees Up Mother Brown'.
But Anderson is at her best later in the album, when she indulges her darker side. It suits her voice to put it to the service of minor-key melodies and spare arrangements, singing words of sorrow and angst. 'The Third Death' does just that, as Anderson turns her attention to the Mexican belief that we die not once, but three times.
As the chorus goes, 'When I go, that's the first. The second's when I'm in my grave. And the third's when the world no longer speaks my name.' That haunting thought is interwoven with a ghostly scene on a water's edge, as Anderson wrestles with a bout of existential angst, set to the best melody of the entire album.
The very next track, 'Little Sounds Of Pain' is almost as gripping. It's an unhappy paean to tinnitus – the permanent ringing in the ears from which Anderson suffers. She describes the condition as 'a mournful song with no melody', and as a jealous foe, while paradoxically setting it to some hauntingly lovely music. As so often on this album, guest artist Ruby Colley's wonderful folk violin is to the fore.
A version of the folk standard 'Peggy Gordon' is similarly bleak yet beautiful, before we arrive at the title track, 'In My Garden', another song with a twist, and yet another eerie meditation on death.
Taken all together, the album's second half is dark, emotionally intense and brave, and it makes you wonder what an entire album's worth of Anderson's dark side would sound like. As it is, there's a slight disconnect in tone with the more cheery moments early on. Indeed, it's hard to believe that 'Gentleman' and 'The Third Death' share the same track list.
But when In My Garden hits its stride, it’s a deliciously dark treat – the sound of a young songwriter facing her fears and tackling them head-on. In My Garden is available to download now.