by Chris Hatch
The opening track on Lesson feels as if it’s being written right in front of you. Long, contemplative and – at times – almost suffocating pauses give the impression that this idea of self-exploration and a desire for knowing the unknown is revealing itself to Merival seconds before she sings each line. It’s this theme of ongoing learning and self-discovery that colours the entire alt-folk album, on which it feels Toronto based Anna Horvath is still wrestling with what all this new emotional information means – at times leaping between a wary uncertainty, and a freshly-found confidence.
This sense that Horvath is halfway up a gently climbing learning curve means that the album flits schizophrenically between a blossoming optimism, and a cautious naivety – often giving the impression of a jigsaw that is being completed as the album unfurls; Horvath finding a new piece of herself in each song, without ever really completing the puzzle.
On songs like Sinner and Good Enough Again, Horvath is confident and comfortable with her new found emotional growth. Even when singing about delicate aspects of her personality, she sings with the gentle ferocity of the likes of Anna Calvi and PJ Harvey – sounding at ease with the newly discovered skin she’s living in. But with each new track, it’s almost as though a coin is tossed and a different side lands face up every time – take for example album bookends Miles and Kind Of Like The Wind – songs in which Horvath inhabits a brittle, worried wariness about the challenges she’ll face as she continues to climb her personal learning curve, which sees her more exposed and vulnerable, evoking the likes of Adrianne Lenker and Laura Marling.
Musically, the album has a maturity and an assuredness that has come with Horvath‘s time spent in the music world – for all the internal wrangling she deals with lyrically, there is a quiet confidence to the songwriting. Having said that, even this aspect of the record isn’t free from Horvath’s reluctance to settle into one groove – the album skips from stately strings on Sinner, to the double bass and jazz drum backed baroque waltz of No Brakes, but is never far away from the stripped back sparseness found on Novel.
Through no fault of her own, Horvath’s voice sits in a place that is arguably overcrowded at the moment – the ‘introspective alt-folk artist’ bracket is currently awash with brilliantly unique voices. Thankfully, the brace of songs that round off the record are two of the strongest – Good Enough Again is a boldly confident full band affair, while Kind Of Like The Wind is a soporific exercise in coming-to-terms – where the inclusion of a simple, rolling snare masterfully helps build a quiet tension.
Lesson is an album that takes a while to untangle lyrically and musically – it tends to keep you off balance and only after a few listens does it start to weave its way into your psyche. That earlier metaphor of an unfinished puzzle is only partly correct; at times it maybe feels like an unpickable lock, and then like a window that’s fogged over so you can only make out vague shapes. With each listen, the haziness clears, bringing the listener a little closer to understanding the record. And as the final bars ring out, you can’t help but feel like you’ve learnt a little more – which, in a way, is exactly what Lesson is all about.
Secret Meeting score: 80