by Chris Hatch
Before his childhood home was finally sold, Leeds-based songwriter, elk, spent one last night there with his family – a night spent reminiscing about the times gone by and the memories made. On his debut album, Beech (named for the street on which that house sat), those themes of quiet contemplation, hazy nostalgia and familial bonding seep through.
Beautiful finger-picked guitars form the heart of the album, while soft, straightforward synths add an after dark atmosphere to Joey Donnelly’s confessional lyrics – but it’s Donnelly’s breathy, half-whispered, Kurt Vile-alike half-sung vocals that really give the record that late-night, heart-to-heart character. It’s a feel that sits somewhere between the bluntly honest songwriting of Carrie & Lowell-era Sufjan Stevens – see lead-single, Yue – and the atmospheric intensity of early Bon Iver.
At times you feel like a fly-on-the-wall – and as Donnelly restrains his voice so as not to wake up the rest of the house, you can’t help but sense the streetlight creeping into the corners of the room, and feel that contradictory mixture or optimism and regret that the abyss of a late night is stirring up inside him.
On an album that encompasses seven songs in just 21 minutes, there are moments that feel under-developed – but these moments are fleeting, and for the vast majority of the album, there’s a sense that 21-year-old Donnelly is beyond his years, none more so than on midway point, Something – a song that sees the songwriter find a Damien Rice-like intensity that grows and grows. Album closer, Stupid World, steals the show – it starts in stark fashion, all hushed vocals and gentle guitar, but it eventually bursts into life with a blistering shot of military-tattoo evoking snare drums that really does echo those seat-jolting moments that Justin Vernon’s won over so many hearts with.
Ultimately, Beech is a charming invitation into a part of Donnelly’s past – at first it’s deceivingly uncomplicated, but – given time – this plaintive collection lures you into a sense that you’ve known him for a very long time.
Secret Meeting score: 76