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The Anchoress
The Art Of Losing Marc Burrows , March 15th, 2021 09:33

With guest vocals from James Dean Bradfield (and drumming from Sterling Campbell, it's nonetheless Catherine Anne Davies's own production skills that make her second Anchoress album so special, finds Marc Burrows

“Ouch,” sings Catherine Anne Davies, right at the starter pistol, “this is going to hurt”. Any good iconoclast knows to put their manifesto in the first line, and in her persona as The Anchoress, Davies is always iconoclastic about her own trauma.

She’s absolutely right as well. The Art of Losing really fucking hurts. It hurts more as it goes along. The whole record is a processing plant for rage and pain, sharpening it to a point, adding the cruellest barbs and driving it into your skin. Deeper it goes, hurting more with every tap of the sonic mallet. Right through the wrists and ankles, right against the rough wood of the cross, right through the side. Every line is a thorn, a nail, the whole Lance of fucking Longinus. And you know what? You’re going to love it, you absolute sadist.

By the time you get to ‘5am’, an astonishingly raw piano piece that uses the fluids and viscera left in the aftermath of miscarriage, domestic violence, and sexual assault to illustrate a pain shared by women everywhere, you’re going to be a sobbing mess. Amanda Palmer would sell her Instagram followers to have written something this powerful. It’s cathartic sobbing, though. You’ll feel better for it.

Davies is present in three forms here, spectrum-split into her own Trinity. First is the confessional singer-songwriter. That’s our entry point. She spins a melody and turns a phrase with the best. The record is full of grade-A pop earworms, as on the humdinger chorus of ‘Show Your Face’, or the nagging refrain of the title track. Her lyrics are confessional and raw at times, but they’re also clever. As with her debut, Confessions of a Romance Novelist, she knows how to weaponise clichés for effect. At one point she rhymes “monopoly” with “existential melancholy”, and she’s absolutely aware, as a PhD in queer theory and literature, that a portion of her audience is going to crack up at the audacity, the nerve, the gumption.

Then there’s Davies the musician. She plays almost everything here, which means the drama and energy of her confessionals are channelled into the playing. She has a light-touch as a pianist and an angular attack as a guitarist (the howling middle section of ‘My Confessor’, for example, is brutal), and she knows how to serve the song.

Finally, there’s the Holy Spirit; Davies the producer, and that’s probably her greatest asset. As much as you could strip these songs down to piano or guitar and they’d work fine, The Art of Losing works because it has an immaculate sonic identity. It’s a dense, dark record that rewards a pair of really good headphones. Davies uses vintage synths and rotating speakers to create unsettling, liquid moments, reflecting the warped and distorted moods of her narrative.

There’s so much delicious drama here – the chilly, Bowie-In-Berlin wave that hits with the chorus of ‘The Exchange’, the spiky, compressed attack of ‘Show Your Face’, or the breathing space of the instrumental interludes that divide the record into chapters.

To say this is Davies’ masterpiece is to suggest she might never better it, so let’s not make that assumption. It’s certainly someone’s masterpiece though. Possibly yours, if you can bear it. Make no bones, this is an astonishing work. All the more so, because there are some that will always dismiss a woman like Davies; a leopard-suited, kohl-eyed intellectual glammy who’s guested with the Manics so often Nicky Wire called her “our Tammi Terrell”, got Bernard Butler to bust out his Suede-era chops on their excellent collaboration In Memory of My Feelings, and toured as a member of Simple Minds. A lesser artist could be ghettoised as an Accessory For Men; though the fact her first Manics collaboration was singing the Traci Lords part on a live version of ‘Little Baby Nothing’ suggests she’s well aware of the risks of such perceptions.

Writing, performing, and producing The Art of Losing should disabuse that notion for good. She’s learnt from her mentors, sure – that opening line-as-manifesto trick nods to Generation Terrorists’ “You need your stars” – but it’s hard to think of another artist who has taken such personal ownership of their material. Davies’ fingerprints are on every note here, even if she’s doing so via Stirling Campbell’s drums or James Dean Bradfield’s guitar and voice on the record’s most notable guest spots.

The Art of Losing has been in the can for a couple of years now, delayed by the pandemic. It’s been worth the wait: this is a special record. They don’t come along very often. Quotable, immersive, moving, imaginative, delicate, and dramatic. A stellar achievement.