“Let it hurt some, let it hurt some,” commands Catherine Anne Davies at the start of ‘The Art Of Losing’, her second album as The Anchoress. Better to suffer it than to live under it, the record seems to say – a project of processing rather than trying to fix or bury grief.
‘The Art Of Losing’ has been waiting in the wings for a year thanks to the inevitable, and while the delayed release provided Davies with distance from the specific, significant losses she explores in her songs, collectively we’ve grown much closer to the concept of loss. Grief occurs on a global scale in a pandemic, and burns with fiercer relevance.
The Anchoress persona offers Davies some separation from the personal loss her music confronts: the death of her father, multiple lost pregnancies, a cervical cancer diagnosis. Yet as Catherine Anne Davies she wears many hats too. Producer, multi-instrumentalist, writer, she has a PhD in literature and queer theory, made an album with Bernard Butler (last year’s ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’), and joined Simple Minds for a time – much of ‘The Art Of Losing’ was made during their 2018 European tour.
As tightly themed as The Anchoress’ first album, ‘Confessions Of A Romance Novelist’, on ‘The Art Of Losing’ the music – not a litany of sad ballads, but gothic art-rock and electro pop – provides the real cohesion. Davies wrote and produced the entire album, the kind of artistic control favoured by visionaries like Bowie and Bjork. Sterling Campbell, once drummer for Bowie, supplies drums, while James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers – the band who inspired Davies to go to university – guests on two tracks: a satisfying collaboration given Davies considers ‘The Art Of Losing’ her ‘The Holy Bible’.
Opening and closing piano compositions give the album a cinematic sense of place: hotel rooms, night vistas, dawn light, quiet locations of louder heartbreak. But in between, there’s space for every feeling in the book. The record is almost hyper-literate – the title refers to an Elizabeth Bishop poem, and the track ‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ riffs on a Carson McCullers novel – but really these are pop lyrics. “It’s never over / I’ll love you ‘til I’m gone,” Davies sings on ‘Unravel’ with a tragic swoon to rival Lana Del Rey. The music contains the deeper emotion, from a euphoric ache last felt on Suzanne Sundfør’s ‘Ten Love Songs’, to the anger pulsing through tracks like ‘The Exchange’, which features Bradfield’s unmistakeable Manics energy.
‘With The Boys’ takes a swipe at the male-dominated music industry, with the spirit of Kate Bush – who also often produced her own albums. Davies is a similar gearhead, well-versed in music tech and a champion of female producers. The analogue techniques and vintage kit she employs on ‘The Art Of Losing’ lends a sonic otherworldliness that fits the subject matter without being a prescriptive, gloomy dirge.
Except, that is, for ‘5AM’. Coloured only by piano, cello, and red, red blood “dropping and I can’t sleep / and I can’t speak”, Davies’ account of miscarriage, sexual assault, and domestic abuse is so frank the performers required a studio breather. Yet her honesty also creates a feeling of relief that offsets some of the song’s weight. For this is a universal as well as a personal album, and somewhere within its mirrored realms, you may encounter yourself.
No one-sided elegy or glorification of suffering, ‘The Art Of Losing’ is a pop record as much as a place of refuge. Davies draws together all kinds of loss, individual and collective, to reach a point of emotional focus and musical thrill: a gathering of griefs, untangled and laid out to dry. She configures a different kind of heaviness – one that finds room for the light.