Lael Neale’s Twitter bio simply reads “Luddite”, which seems about right given the highly analogue creation of her second record, ‘Acquainted With Night’. Limited to first takes on a 4-track cassette recorder, with little more than a vintage Omnichord for company, Neale sought to capture the elusive true form of her songs, not weighted down by production.
Even her descriptions of the recording process sound like something from back in the seventies. “We had this complex method of listening back on a boombox since the rewind button didn’t work on the recorder,” she says. On the resulting album, harp, harmonium, and drum sounds accompany Neale’s crystalline voice. Like a retro photo filter, the lo-fi production yields a record that seems unearthed from the dusty vaults of time.
The idea of ‘lost tapes’ circled the brains of Neale and producer Guy Blakeslee for a while – a portrait “made in private by an artist at the peak of creative power and rediscovered by chance for the ages” – and ‘Acquainted With Night’ could be the long-lost relative of a Karen Dalton album. But Neale’s slipped beyond the folk sound of her 2015 debut ‘I’ll Be Your Man’, which took Lana Del Rey’s Laurel Canyon leanings to a whole new level of authentic, with song titles like ‘White Daisy, Lace Gloves’ and ‘Cinnamon & Dust’. On her new record, Neale is more like a chain-link between the technical tinkering of Miss Grit and the pared poetics of Sybille Baier or Fred Neil.
But John Lennon was the major inspiration for the teenage Neale, a necessary “rebel for a rule-follower” with a human yet otherworldly spirit that’s surely seeped into ‘Acquainted With Night’. On ‘Sliding Doors’, a song that seems held in mid-air, the refrain “I’m never lonesome” grows like a gospel chant in strength and eventual joy. The organ tones and harp-like timbre of the Omnichord play a big part in this slightly sacred, ageless feeling. ‘White Wings’ sounds particularly like a lost recording, backed by the faint white noise of the cassette recorder.
For all the album’s otherworldliness, Neale’s lyrics are often down-to-earth. Her neatest trick is to bury honesty in poetic technique, so that clear lines beat out with feeling – like somebody who doesn’t swear very often so the ‘fuck’ has punch. On the compelling up-tempo ‘For No One For Now’, Neale sums up the content melancholia of solitude: “It’s a new day but I’m folding sheets in the bedroom for no one for now”. Meanwhile, ‘Every Star Shivers In The Dark’ combines the spiritual with the ordinary, the pilgrim “leaving the known for something more” captured alongside the grocery store worker. “I work in service too,” Neale sings, “so I feel for you.” Her empathetic lyrics and vocals lend extra intimacy to the austere instrumentation.
‘Acquainted With Night’ tracks how time moves through us, and how we move through time. Yet the record itself is timeless: not belonging to now, nor to any other moment in history. Its songs hang like dust mites suspended in a shaft of sunlight. Making a case for Luddites everywhere, Lael Neale infuses new music with a precious value that normally only comes with age – a remarkable feat that finds some explanation in the title track: “It’s how you talk to me in the forest of song / I am led, let me be led on.”