Those who have enjoyed the music of Keaton Henson over the past decade may be surprised to discover his instrumental side; he’s known for tender ballads sung in the Damien Rice style, his voice a reed perpetually on the verge of breaking. But subtract the vocals from Kindly Now and one is left with empathetic piano and melancholic orchestra (especially on closing track “How Could I Have Known”), powerful enough to stand on their own.
This is what occurs on Six Lethargies, which began its public life in an unusual manner. Some of the premiere attendees were attached to sensors to measure whether they might feel the same emotions as Henson felt while writing his music. The loud cloud superimposed on the artist’s head in the cover art of Kindly Now symbolizes anxiety and depression, as mirrored in the lyrics of “Alright” ~ “Don’t make me go outside; God knows what out there lies; I’m hoping I don’t die after you.” The amorphous smudge reappears on the cover of Six Lethargies, perhaps even more foreboding as the human image is as absent as the words.
Not that Henson is trying to depress his audience. He’s searching for a shared reception, triggered by music. Might Six Lethargies make listeners sad? Might it provoke anxiety? And if not, might it at least produce a feeling of compassion? The more anxious public listeners felt, the more the lights reacted to them, which might have produced a feedback loop; no such phobia is present at home, or wherever the album is played. (After multiple spins at home, I took the album on a ride to a funeral and back, which seemed appropriate ~ only to discover that the music contains moments of triumph as well as those of reverence.)
It’s tempting to trust that there are universal constants in our reactions to music, but ethnologists have discovered the opposite. Not that the same series of chords is considered depressing in one culture and joyous in another, but that the progression may produce an emotional response in one region and flat affect elsewhere. This being said, it’s unlikely that Six Lethargies will be played among the Inuits or in a gathering of Masai. Most Western ears will receive it in a spectrum that stretches from regret to awe. And while there’s nothing as heartbreaking as “Adagio for Strings” (often called the saddest song ever written), the door is flung open to such feelings. One need not hear Billie Holiday (“Gloomy Sunday”) to consider throwing one’s self off a roof.
To these ears, the album is not depressing, but lovely. While it may have risen from depression, the fact of its existence is proof that the artist was anything but lethargic, even if the writing took months to complete. The music is also a comfort, a blanket of empathy one might draw around the shoulders. The sluggish tempo and rising volume of “Initium” give way to quickening passages in “The Falling,” which leaps from moments of silence to near-cacophony. The closing minutes contain references to Penderecki’s staccato timbres, matched by the smoothness of soothing strings. Which emotion will win? In this case, there is an answer. The album’s most disturbing moment arrives at the end of this movement, as a chord grows for fifteen seconds before its head is chopped off. After this, a longer-than-usual pause between tracks, followed by the hive-like buzz of “Unease Concerto – Credenza.” The mind is a whirl of fierce emotions.
And yet, the artist will not return to this lopping, which causes one to examine the sequencing. The hardest part is over, the dragon faced, the leap taken, the loss survived. After this, life goes on. The album will continue to wrestle with unease; it’s not a Disney ending. Then again, Disney endings are not even what they used to be, as sequels challenge the idea of happy-ever-after. Henson isn’t happy-ever-after, but he’s prolific, charting emotion first with words, then with music, calling even silence to his palette. Six Lethargies may be uneasy listening, but it reflects the fragility of the human psyche, communicating its central message without words: you are not alone. (Richard Allen)