“So I told you, you should grieve the night
And mourn the stars above
That those who hate Los Angeles
Have never been in love”
— “No Witnesses”
If you haven’t heard of Keaton Henson, that’s partly because he doesn’t want you to. The legendary recluse’s first album Dear… wasn’t even intended for release. But the singer and illustrator’s talents betrayed him when his sad and lonely melodies resonated with sad and lonely people.
Six years later, Kindly Now might be his finest creation since Dear… first made us swell with emotion. Henson’s acoustic ballads aren’t revolutionary, but his ability to convey intense emotion through every vocal inflection is remarkable. It’s clear he sings for himself, which eliminates the need to prove his ability. Every word feels like a good friend sobbing on your shoulder, but it’s oddly enjoyable. His words are heavy to begin with (“I need pain for my art./ Take my lungs, break my heart.”) but his tone suggests many tears were shed in the recording studio. If he told you music was just a job, you’d call him one hell of an actor.
Kindly Now features many of the same sounds as his previous works, but the sampled beginning of the opening track “March,” is a significant evolution for Henson. “March” is a bit more hopeful than its successors, with rising strings that feel like the opening to the saddest romance movie ever. The orchestral undertones create a sense of tragedy throughout the album that separates it from the lone singer-songwriter, angsty guitar genre.
There’s also a lot of focus on instruments evoking mood without Henson’s introspective crooning. The strings and piano that bridge “NW Overture” and “No Witnesses” are arguably more powerful than Henson’s raspy whisperings on love lost. He seems like a man who would have difficulty using a fly swatter, until he finally finds his footing on “Comfortable Love.” It’s the most riled up you’ll hear Henson get, and he’s only moved from his library to his inside voice.
For as deep and beautiful as many of the tracks are, Henson struggles to differentiate his lyrics. Without the passion in his voice, there’s not much to praise. He generically wonders about lovers’ intentions, ponders his loneliness and asks open-endedly about the future. Finally, though, on the Sufjan Stevens-esque “Old Lovers in Dressing Rooms,” Henson tells us a story. He compares lives with an old lover only to feel ashamed about his reclusive lifestyle when she tells him about her husband and house. It’s the album’s only mention of Henson’s relative fame. He’s drawn a small following in England and Europe, though he rarely performs because of his crippling anxiety.
After Henson walks us into the trenches of his inner turmoil where we are free to numbly stand in the pouring rain, he brings out the sunshine of “Holy Lover.” The chorus keeps up the bright melody as the same line repeats:
“I think I love you, baby please don’t be afraid of me.”
It appears the irony is lost on him.