There is an abundance of good producers in the realm of electronic music. There are some good songwriters too. To find an artist capable of excelling in both aspects can prove challenging. Even Thom Yorke, often considered one of the best songwriters of modern music, has released electronic records to varying degrees of success. James Blake has found a formula that works for him, though even then some listeners remain skeptical.
Enter Kelly Lee Owens from North Wales. Her second studio album, Inner Song, is a beautiful blend of dream pop and techno, with songs that shine just as much on headphones as they inevitably will on the dance floor. It’s so assuring to listen to an electronic record that feels comfortable operating at its own pace. There are bangers, of course, but for the most part Inner Song is a thoroughly patient experience, and it’s all the better for it. “Corner of My Sky”, a real slow-burner featuring the legendary John Cale, is probably the only time I feel that the record is too passive for its own good. With its 7-minute running time, the song just ends up feeling lethargic.
Aside from that, Inner Song is a consistently gorgeous listen. Owens’ delicate vocals provide a softening touch that contrasts quite brilliantly with throbbing beats and icy synths. The instrumental club cuts are mostly my favourites, but the more songful tunes are vital in providing a steady flow to the album. Stomping rave anthems like “Melt!” and “Night” wouldn’t be so effective if not for the likes of “L.I.N.E.”, “Re-Wild”, and the euphoric closing track “Wake Up”. The balance is almost perfect. Almost.
Inner Song is a record I’d recommend not just to fans of electronica, but also experimental singer-songwriters like Bon Iver, or even St. Vincent. Though Owens may not be as adventurous with her songwriting as those artists, she more than makes up for it with her compelling sonic explorations. It’s a beautifully arranged album, perfect for late-night meditations. I’m already anticipating her next step.
8 out of 10
I came close to adoring Inner Song. Bold, playful, and absolutely immaculate, it’s everything I tend to like in an electronic album. And yet in a way the album is so delicate, so finely made, that it at times feels too fragile for its own good. It’s like a frozen wildflower – intricate and beautiful, but prone to shatter at any moment.
When I complain that immaculately produced electronic music needs more direction, this is the kind of stuff I’m hoping for. The record is almost unerringly focused. Kelly Lee Owen’s ethereal vocals are bolstered by immaculate, synth-heavy arrangements, with percussion bobbing along just beneath the surface. When the pieces click together the results are joyous. “L.I.N.E.” and “Re-Wild” positively soar, while instrumental tracks like “Arpeggi” show the arrangements can stand on their own two feet when they have to.
The blight for me is “Corner of My Sky”, which tramples the flowery picture with all the grace of a grazing cow. It’s not a bad track, but it disrupts an already gentle flow, and the album never quite recovers its mojo. Were it not for that I’d likely be in the same ballpark as André. Instead I’ve had to settle for really, really liking Inner Song and thinking it’s great. Alas.
7 out of 10
Inner Song is one of those albums that I wish I could like more than I do. While plenty of the album’s qualities are admirably delivered, sublime, and polished to a fine sheen, its general sterility and lacking variation mean that, while it’s often a gorgeous listen, I’ve found it deeply forgettable.
Kelly Lee Owen’s approach, akin to Jon Hopkins’ output married with more traditional song structures, works well for the first half of the album. Her anchoring of weightless synths and low-impact percussion to a warm, bassy undercurrent and recognisable structuring works well to begin with, and the majesty of its production and dynamics are the stuff of audiophiles’ dreams. The trouble is that none of these qualities are memorable in and of themselves – in fact, the ponderousness and consistent (read: uneventful) atmosphere tend towards the disappointingly homogenous. There are plenty of instances where KLO’s vocals save the day, humanising things as they start getting too sterile, and her voice’s serenity is often moving. The tracks where she unleashes her voice are sequenced well with the more ambient cuts, but it’s hard to pinpoint when and where the intrigue comes in beyond these injections of personality.
“Jeanette” is easily my favourite track on the album, but it’s a bit of an outsider in its vibrancy, energy, and 8-bit-esque playfulness. It’s indicative of the sense that, maybe, I’m not the right person for the wider piece, namely in that I’m disappointed to see so few of “Jeanette”’s engaging qualities replicated elsewhere. It’s a ponderous, ambient album, and that’s fine. What is replicated, to a frustrating degree by the end, is the aforementioned approach to structure. By the time we hit “Night”, following the deathly boring and overlong “Corner of My Sky”, the familiarity of KLO’s use of crescendos, layered arpeggios, and bursts of energy start feeling uniform and uninspired.
The sum is an album that is sumptuously well-produced and clear in direction, whilst also being disengaging and unmemorable. It’s a nice listening experience, there’s no doubt about that, but it lacks the bite that makes the likes of Jon Hopkins, Thom Yorke, or Bonobo’s albums so characterful.
6 out of 10