Sarah Nixey

Night Walks

Third solo album from former Black Box Recorder vocalist is a triumph of hallucinatory avant pop

There is a point in A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk’s memoir on becoming a mother, when she describes night-time with a crying infant as like trying to sleep in an airport with garish fluorescent lights and planes constantly taking off. Sarah Nixey’s new album recalls a period of insomnia after her youngest child was born, and captures perfectly that sense of night-time disturbance, shifting between dream worlds and waking nightmare.

At four in the morning it’s not just the thought of the email you should have sent, but the things you dread most. Opening track ‘Coming Up For Air’ is the complete opposite of Black Box Recorder’s ‘Child Psychology’ – the track that got them banned on BBC radio and MTV with its line “Life is unfair / kill yourself / or get over it”. Here a mother sings to a suicidal daughter, summoning up images of drowned Ophelia while imploring “You could reach for my hand / the water is not deep”. The sweet echo of Nixey’s voice, combined with a sweeping Associates-style chorus, conveys that fierce, protective parental love, almost deranged in its intensity.

With this album Nixey’s songwriting shows new depth and maturity. On her 2007 debut Sing, Memory and the dark lounge-core of 2011’s Brave Tin Soldiers, she fashioned elegant worlds of film-noirish obsession, but Night Walks feels like a more personal odyssey. She still whispers and sings with impeccably delivered words, but it’s less sexy schoolmistress and more free-flowing emotion. Created with husband/producer Jimmy Hogarth (Sia, Corinne Bailey Rae) with a blend of electronica and classic 70s analogue recording, each song is about characters hanging on, hunting dreams or slipping away.

‘Merry England’ for example, is about postwar slum clearances and lost community, a husky ballad with a sardonic subtext, while ‘Zeppelin’ is a vision of Queen of Bohemia Nina Hamnett watching an airship go up in flames with her lover on board. Hamnett was a artist who danced naked on a table in Montparnasse, and a model for Roger Fry and Augustus John; despite the operatic glamour of her life, she died an alcoholic in tragic circumstances. Nixey captures the desperate gaiety of that figure in the louche, swaying rhythms of ‘Journey’ and ‘Love Is Blue’.

Previously Nixey nurtured a seductive, controlling alter ego, but on this album she explores disorientation. She does this with a spare poetry. “Threat of rain… looms / I fall into a faint / Lingering malaise,” she sings softly on closing track ‘Planet of Dreams’. The song is immersed in a dreamy bath of warm flute and Hammond organ chords before Nixey’s soaring soprano signals daybreak and a new start. A darkly beautiful pop album that must have laid those demons to rest.

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