Keeley Forsyth

The Hollow

Two years after Limbs, the third album from the brilliant actor-composer references Bela Tarr and 80s protest anthems, occupying a space all its own

Out walking bleak Yorkshire moors, the Oldham-born composer, singer and actor Keeley Forsyth uncovers a long-abandoned mine shaft, bullying its way under the skin of the hillside. Not that deep. Sort of like a hidden room, to take her outside of the world, until she chooses to re-enter it, and it gives Forsyth the title for her third solo album.

The Hollow comes roughly two years after Forsyth’s second record Limbs and once again she is mainly working with producer Ross Downes, though Matthew Bourne shows up for closing track ‘Creature’, while Colin Stetson constructs an ambitious jigsaw puzzle of overlaid sax parts on ‘Turning’.

Overall, The Hollow is even more expansive and ‘bigger’ (whatever that means) than Limbs, yet at the same time it is more direct, immediate and more impactful. To do both at once is so impressive. This is a better record – and Limbs was a great record. Forsyth and Downe have clearly worked hard to develop their dynamic movement and conjure landscape and scale out of spare instrumentation, while assiduously avoiding whatever might show up to inveigle Forsyth into anything as gauche as ‘genre’.

The results are full fathom vast, right from the off. Sepulchral rather than languorous or sensual, they manage to keep the music minimal and under control, while still drenched in that spacious scale and unforgiving harmonic complexity.

Despite gorgeous foghorning synths right across the album’s palette, it often comes off pure ancient. Opener ‘Answer’ and then title track ‘The Hollow’ both lean hard on the sense (though not the specific content) of medieval music. Choir. Deep-piped churchy organ. Low bowed strings. Overlaid vocal patterns. But halfway through the song ‘The Hollow’, still less than ten minutes into the album, Forsyth lurches up an octave to repeat over and over as an intense mantra – “Shake my life out of my mouth”– and we have been dropped (without parachute or sleeping bag) into a profoundly wild place, dizzying, rootless in rural northern England, in those othered hilly spaces between the great industrial cities.

Straight away, here is a properly fascinating, premier league contemporary composer, coming into their power.

I had two modest problems with Limbs (though I admired it hugely): I wanted a bit more of it (it’s under half an hour long) and I resented its intangibility. It was a hard-to-grasp record in so many ways, even as it was a pleasure to listen to. But songs on The Hollow only make it hard to immediately capture their meaning, when they really want to. It is more like the timed release of a medicine, certainly a controlled and deliberate and masterful thing that will reveal itself when it decides. That’s different, I think.

Also, between Limbs and The Hollow, Forsyth has been bereaved. Last year she lost her grandmother Mary, who’d brought her up from a young age, after she was estranged from her parents. Mary was the first to encourage young Keeley into the creative and performing life. ‘Come And See’ and then ‘Eve’ both explicitly address this and are dedicated to her.

Then ‘A Shift’ and suddenly here’s a spoken vocal, with all the actor’s narrative skill and timing. Forsyth is leaning back into that trade too, recently, since Limbs. It was a lovely spot when she showed up onscreen in Lanthimos’ Poor Things.

In the context of this record’s spaciousness, throwing in verses of distinctly non-abstract spoken narrative is risky. If it were any less well delivered than this, it might derail the suspension of disbelief of the whole. Especially when Forsyth seems to be unpacking ideas around the labour of arts performance itself, “when I put on my trousers…”

But no, she’s easily deft enough. She overlays multi-tracked speech with a soaring synth line and more singing. ‘A Shift’ nods to Mal Finch’s mid-80s Miners’ Strike protest anthem ‘Women Of The Working Class’. Finch’s actual lines haunt the background behind Forsyth’s spoken solidarity with creative labour.

And I work. And I dance. And I practice. To provide. For expression.

Here we go, here we go, for the women of the working class.

She’s never afraid to be like this.

As a listener, whether you enjoy The Hollow – or basically any of Keeley Forsyth’s work that includes her vocals – will depend heavily on if you dig her voice or not. Forsyth isn’t a singer who exists in the same space, the same universe, as many other singers, and obviously, if you can’t get behind the voice, you won’t be onboard. She always gets me, from the moment she begins.

Her deep, hard-hewn, theatrical (though in no way hammy) vibrato is a unique, demanding, complex, sometimes truly astounding voice. She has the ability to catch you at unexpected angles, with immense light and shade within a taut phrase. On Limbs she already reminded me of two great singers, June Tabor and especially Lisa Gerrard. On The Hollow she is direct and experimental. Anohni comes to mind. The Irish singer Lisa O’Neill.

Sometimes Forsyth’s intellectual, cultural curiosity will take her down a path that is so unselfconsciously arty it gets quite baroque. So, like, as The Hollow draws to a close, ‘Horse’ is a re-imagining of a piece of music from the soundtrack of Bela Tarr’s final film The Turin Horse. Its original composer Mihály Vig gave Forsyth permission to mess about with his piece, and from it she weaves a tense loping looping of evocative (though straightforward) phrases. We are transported to another age, with (again) the sonic texture of bleak landscape, yet dropped into a domestic setting:

The fire must keep

My father must sleep

Around this house I creep

Someone is looking after someone, at a cold time, perhaps in the dead of night. Careful specificity of language, but timeless. A universal experience. Obviously, I wouldn’t know any of the above mentioned context around the songwriting, without details from the press release. Will that stuff be explained in liner notes too? Does it matter?

A couple of times I wonder why Forsyth keeps her songs – her compositions – so brief. It doesn’t need to be pop music and other artists in her ballpark often stretch stuff out. Lankum finish songs like James Joyce finished sentences. A couple of tracks have endings so abrupt they feel artificial. They definitely have me wishing for longer codas and wig-outs. Does she ever let it go on longer? Is this instinct, or discipline? A plan, or just how songs came out? But crucially, where Limbs felt like someone still developing their sense of direction, The Hollow sounds like someone nearing absolute mastery.

Some folks are well into a high concept elevator pitch version of this universe, right now. You know. Weird Walks zine and the Sheldrakes everywhere and that psych-folk TV series of Benjamin Myers’ novel The Gallows Pole and so on. I also think singing has opened up somewhat, even in just the past couple of years, with the Dublin scene in ascendence and Arooj Aftab opening doors and so on. I hear a richer variety of not just voices themselves but vocal choices being made.

So I wonder if the culture will shine a brighter spotlight on Keeley Forsyth, despite her making the kind of music that doesn’t remotely want all its shadows erased.

What a bloody phenomenal album, in a space all of its own.

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