One Breath – Anna Calvi
39:12 min • Domino • October 7, 2013
John Preston reviews
Anna Calvi’s debut album was heralded as a ‘new classic’ within moments of its release. It was florid and troubled, being close cousins to the work of artists such as Nick Cave, and with a cinematic cloak draped over it, as if imagined by David Lynch at his most romantic and doomed. It was also produced by Rob Ellis, long-time collaborator with PJ Harvey. Ah yes, PJ Harvey. It would be almost irresponsible as a reviewer of music not to acknowledge that both artists can share a writing and melodic style. Vocal comparisons can on occasion be made between Calvi and Harvey and both fall into the same genre of woman with a guitar (sometimes), not passive, singer-songwriter blues rock, visually hyper-stylised, entertainer. There are many people who have made records over the past decade or so where the influence of PJH is undeniable, but unlike the majority, Calvi’s talent is the actual link between the two and not simply her desire to mimic Harvey. This is reinforced here on her second album, the radiant and self-possessed One Breath.
After the stalking guitars and ghostly “ooh-ooohs” of ‘Suddenly’ and ‘Eliza’ with its thumping strum, it’s only on the third track, ‘Piece by Piece’, that Calvi deviates from the sonic template previously established on her debut. After the broken and collapsing strings of the intro, a rhythmic, tumbling drum snaps into shape. A plucked mandolin, as well as various electronic zips and pops, swoon around Calvi, who has conjured up the spirit of Siouxsie Sioux here, whilst a scuzzy bass muscles up against the airy strings. The total effect is mesmerizing. It’s these string sections, very much a musical theme here, that gives One Breath its power, the push and pull between light and dark. Producer John Congleton, who has amongst others worked with Joanna Newsom and St Vincent, helped create a sumptuous but frequently uneasy and volatile sound scape throughout.
Calvi has spoken out about how, during the making of this album, she suffered from very low moods and that someone very close to her died. It is likely that this went toward dictating the themes and mood, and the title track is the centrepiece around which each track is laid. “I got one, I got one breath to give … it’s going to change everything”, Calvi repeats as though it is a mantra, whilst everything around her is building unforgivingly. Then, precisely at the 3 minute mark, a gorgeous orchestral coda breaks through the tension and instantly lifts Calvi, as well as the listener, wordlessly away to a safer and more beautiful place. It’s both moving and dramatic, a combination of theatre and absolute sincerity.
Elsewhere, the near 6-minute ‘Carry Me Over’, with its demonically euphoric final minute of Calvi’s rapturous wails pillowed by the continuing orchestration, is a genuine tour de force. ‘Sing to Me’, which regularly threatens to break into ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, is an authentic and commanding torch song. After this heightened sensation of a noir love story gone awry, the false start of the rock ‘n’ roll throb of the most straight forward song here, ‘Love of My Love,’ is an unexpected and thrilling thump in the eye. The shortest and perhaps most breath-taking song is closer ‘The Bridge’, an a capella, choral hymn that chills and will make many misty eyed with its simple, crystalline beauty.
In some ways Anna Calvi has toned down the theatrics that dominated her debut and replaced them with a more nuanced and considered account of a persona under attack that ultimately breaks free from previous restraints, self-imposed or otherwise. Without doubt, the drama and darkness are still present, but on One Breath Calvi has created a collection of songs that show her as an exceptional artist in her own right as opposed to a great artist within the genre. If you want to be genuinely thrilled and startled by music that twists and turns in unpredictable shades and volumes then Anna Calvi has made an album to treasure and completely immerse yourself into. It’s quite an accomplishment.