Keaton Henson’s self-released Dear… was a swift kick in the gut. I learned about the album after stumbling upon the dreary but brilliant video for “Charon,” in which a depressed puppet takes his own life. I don’t normally look for sadsack music like Henson’s, but the delicate and candid expression of his overwhelmingly morose existence brought upon immediate comparisons to Elliott Smith. While it’s unlikely Smith’s melancholic body of work will be eclipsed for me, Keaton Henson is partially filling the void left by Elliott’s tragic 2003 suicide. Birthdays does not live up to what Henson accomplished with Dear…, and it was unrealistic to expect it to. The first half of the record ventures into similar territory and features Keaton’s trembling vocals over delicately played acoustic guitar. The tracks are more polished. The London-based Henson worked with producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes and The Shins) for two months in Los Angeles. There are hints of percussion and piano on several tracks, backing female vocals on “Gare Du Nord,” and a full-on rock band on “Don’t Swim,” “Beekeeper,” and “Kronos.”
We first heard the latter track via music video a few months ago and were instantly taken aback. The track, as a rock song, was average. For Henson, it was a complete departure from everything we loved about him. I now understand what fans were thinking during Dylan’s 1965 electric guitar controversy. As a standalone track, “Kronos” just doesn’t work for me. In the context of the album, I can accept what Henson and Chiccarelli are trying to do. For three songs, Birthdays veers into a completely different and unknown direction than anything Henson’s done before. And I don’t believe in criticizing an artist too harshly for taking such a risk. The mostly solemn “Don’t Swim” turns angry with about a minute and a half left, and it’s a revelatory change and a welcomed new side to Keaton’s musical repertoire. “Beekeeper” doesn’t get as loud as “Don’t Swim” and “Kronos” but features the fullest track Henson’s done to date. With layers of guitar, including what sounds like a banjo, and pounding, anthemic percussion, the song’s rich instrumentation is the antithesis of what we’ve known him for. In this particular case, it’s a good thing. The highlights of Birthdays are undoubtedly the wondrous “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us” and “Lying To You.”
These tracks represent everything we love about Henson and his inability to get over past lovers. In the end, Birthdays is an incredibly moody, diverse, and slightly uneven record that will hopefully gain Keaton more fans. Of course, it is one of our favorite albums of the year, which will certainly be confirmed once the vinyl arrives. Here’s hoping that he garners the courage to make a trip to the U.S. for a few intimate shows. You can stream Birthdays below via Spotify.