Ruth Garbus – Kleinmeister review

by Chris Hatch

From the very first minute of Kleinmeister, there’s an oddly jarring sense of a record that is both inviting and impenetrable. As opening track, Strash, gently pulses along on a welcoming wave of simmering guitars and synths, Garbus’ voice is pushed to the forefront – each vowel perfectly rounded, the tut of every ‘t’ carefully pronounced. She sings with such clarity that at times it feels like a spoken word piece – her visually rich couplets describing ‘wet cardboard steam’ and ‘ancient plastic toys’ in poetic prose.

But while the album wraps you in a warm hug of softly innocent melodies, and twinkling guitars, it’s Garbus’ absurdly abstract imagery that is the most striking feature of the record, and also the hardest to unravel. There’s no question that the American songwriter has a knack for conjuring powerfully vivid scenes in her lyrics. But this is an album that is so personal in its language that it is almost inward-facing, resulting in lyrics that dance between the mysteriously vague and the unfathomably weird.

Having said that, it is not a totally uncrackable nut. The over-arching themes of nature, technology, and death find themselves breaching the surface on numerous occasions – most noticeably on the enchanting Pain when Garbus is most direct about the finite nature of life – reminding us that ‘Whether on city streets by the Sound/In a strip mall’s wings or Appalachian digs in the mountains/It doesn’t matter who, we’re all gonna be underground’. It’s in these moments when she finds a balance between the vastness of life, and the intimacy of her own thoughts, that the record works best.

Structurally, her songs follow the traditional singer-songwriter route, but there are enough vocal flourishes and musical embellishments to keep things interesting – there are times, however, when it feels like Garbus gets stuck in the midrange gears and doesn’t take enough of a leap musically to match the ambitiously creative nature of her lyrics.

In summary, Kleinmeister is an album on which Garbus is writing without an audience in mind – or rather, the only audience in mind is her own conscience, or maybe even her own existence. On one hand, it’s a hard to grasp record that finds Garbus too often getting lost in herself, while on the other hand it’s an enigmatic and other-worldly body of poetry – Garbus channeling a mythology that straddles both ancient and modern worlds in bright flashes of vivid brilliance that leave more than a fleeting impression. Whilst Kleinmeister is not without its flaws, it is most certainly unlike anything you are likely to hear this year.

Secret Meeting score: 70


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