Heartbreak and melancholy so often go hand in hand with relative boredom and maddening lack of substance. To make a record that encapsulated the the former without also providing the latter is quite a feat, especially in a modern world in which pace and tempo are high and people’s attention spans are low. It is this fact that made Sharon Van Etten’s epic Are We There from last year so impressive. With her own blend of songcraft, she was able to keep listeners hooked to her subtle melodies and emotive vocals for the entire album, allowing her to say exactly what she wanted to. Natalie Prass is a singer-songwriter in a similar mould to Van Etten, attempting to derive beauty and meaning from the utterly mundane and often lifeless music that she loves to produce. In the most part on her debut release, she is able to do this but, due to her inexperience, there are a few times where this album falls down and is left wanting.
The shortbreathed gasp at the beginning of opener ‘My Baby Doesn’t Understand Me’ initially suggests a tense and drama-filled tone to this song and the album in general. As the introduction to the song continues though, it soon becomes apparent that the real tone of this album is one of heartbreaking charm and minimalistic but bold musicality. As the track continues, tempos vary and Prass’ voice becomes more and more delicate and clear in its production. A peaceful and enigmatic opening statement.
Prass’ voice has an almost Kate Bush-like high range that is effortless and undeniably charming, but on the up tempo and harsher sounding ‘Bird Of Prey’, this isn’t the card she chooses to play with it. Here, still high in pitch, her voice is solid and assured and not hesitant in it’s delivery in any way. ‘Your Fool’ has a slower beat to it but somehow, through its rhythm section, it seems like a more confident statement is being made musically here. This is extended further by Prass’ lyrics that suggest she is a person who has had a realization about the relationship that she has with her now ex-partner. It paints a picture of a woman at the end of her tether and one that is finally ready to move on, just as soon as she has let him know just what it is that caused this epiphany. She admits that she’ll always be their fool – whoever they are – which shows the seriousness of the relationship. The little giggle that immediately follows this though suggests a certain amount of teasing and sarcasm is present in this statement. The waltz-like musicality of ‘Christy’ has it’s own sinister charm about it and Prass’ voice reflects this with the tongue and cheek delivery of the lyrics that bear the same principle as Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ in that Christy is out to steal Prass’ man when Prass proclaims that she (Christy) could have anyone.
A more conventional song for a break up album, ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me’ shows the first real instance of Prass playing the victim for sympathy rather than point scoring purposes and, whilst it certainly continues the immaculately consistent musical tone of the album to date, it’s just so much less interesting than those tracks around it. It doesn’t excite in the same way that its predecessors and the tracks that follow do.
On ‘Never Over You’ the album’s image becomes a lot denser and duskier. It is more orchestral in its vocal harmonies that are noticeably thicker than before. The only melodic guides are a thin and unimaginative violin track and an intermittent piano run. But somehow, even with this exaggerated simplicity, Prass keeps listeners interested and that is testament solely to the clarity of her lead vocals. The opening to ‘Reprise’ reminds me of the spoken opening to Shania Twain’s ‘You’re Still The One’. However, what is said here is of the polar opposite in terms of love and feelings towards their partner. Prass ‘reprises’ the lyrics from ‘Your Fool’ which sound harsher and a lot colder through speech rather than singing. The final track ‘It Is You’ contains all the grandeur and isolation – in equal measure – of those most iconic 50’s Disney musicals where the (often female) lead gets their solo at the really important part of the film. The musicality is as vivid and imagery-inspiring as the songs of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music etc. and Prass’ completely different but entirely fitting vocal style makes this closer a true delight.
On this most emotional and tragic debut album, Natalie Prass has established herself alongside the true queens of her artform – Adele, Jessie Ware, Paloma Faith etc. – by offering the same business model but done in an entirely charming way. Whereas on ’21’ or ‘Tough Love’ it is always clear what Adele or Ware are thinking and feeling, on ‘Natalie Prass’ the songstress constantly offers juxtaposing tones and subject matters that keep the listener enthralled throughout. Certainly not the most emphatic, inspiring or fun album to listen to, it offers charm in its own way and, in an age in which individuality is truly championed, there could be few better times for music like this to establish itself.