Keaton Henson – Monument
Folk | Alternative
It’s often said that the greatest art is born from sadness. Somehow albums that feel joyous and carefree just don’t have the same impact as albums about loss and heartbreak. When an artist pours their sorrow into their work in an honest and unflinching way, then it’s hard not to be moved by it. Perhaps we’re all a little more broken than we care to admit and are naturally inclined to cling to fellow lost souls. When the right record finds you when you’re at your lowest it can provide immeasurable comfort, sometimes by reaching out to raise you toward the light and sometimes by sitting with you in the darkness when no one else will.
Anyone familiar with Keaton Henson’s work will know that he excels at crafting such records; the kind that burrow their way into your affections and ultimately stay with you for years to come. He openly acknowledges how he pours the shattered fragments of his heart into his music in the opening track ‘Ambulance’, with lines like “I’m empty but don’t it sound so good?”. And by God, it certainly does. Stylistically Monuments largely refrains from dabbling in electronica and alt rock, or diving headfirst into classical music, the way that his previous records have done. In many ways this feels like the quintessential Keaton album in as much as it’s perhaps the one that most plays to his strengths. When I think of his work I think of hushed confessional folk; of austere arrangements, his fragile yet impassioned vocals, of lyrics so startlingly intimate that your feel like an intruder into his very thoughts. This latest release is packed to the brim with impeccable examples of his signature sound.
And yet, what I feel sets Monument apart is context. While his previous work has been very candid when talking about his feelings regarding heartbreak and battling inner demons, the actual inspiration for them is something we could only ever guess at. With this latest release however, the notoriously shy and withdrawn Keaton has revealed the catalyst behind the album: the death of his father after a long struggle with his ailing health. Knowing this adds a greater weight to an already deeply affecting album and makes his words all the more relatable for anyone who’s known loss.
The hauntingly delicate folk of ‘The Grand Old Reason’ features his most heartrending lyricism to date as it details sharing in a loved one’s final moments. It’s parting lines “But like you, I have tried for so long not to cry, That I don’t even know if I can when you die, But I’m sure as damn hell gonna try” honestly hit like a freight train. Even this magnificently moving moment pales in comparison though with the album’s centrepiece ‘Prayer’. The first half plays as a sombre piano ballad, his voice close to breaking on the plaintive chorus of “I’m losing you”, before shifting into sweeping, mournful orchestration. As the elegant strings end abruptly you’re left with the voice of his father, a distant memory taken from some old home video, saying “Keaton, wave to daddy”.
It would have been all too easy, and entirely understandable, for this to have been a bleak album about grief. But while Monuments visits a very dark place it is determined not to dwell there. As much as this is an album about loss, it is also a record about making the most of the time we have. The bittersweet waltz of ‘Husk’ plays like a love song between you and the person you used to be before the slow march of time took them away, serving as a poignant reminder not to take your youth for granted. For me though, it’s album highlight ‘While I Can’ that best captures the determination to live in spite of the shadow that hangs overhead. Written from the perspective of his father, it shows a resolve to keep fighting the inevitable and make the most of each moment shared. The track builds from a dark and airy indie vibe as it details the grip the illness holds, but the fighting spirit determined to seize the day wins out and explodes out in a triumphant and uplifting roar of brass.
The closing line of the album leaves you with a message to take to heart: “I’m going to live if it kills me”. When we lose someone we love it’s not the hardship that we remember. Even on the darkest days when the sorrow strikes deepest and the grief holds a tight grip over us, it’s not from dwelling on the downward spiral, but rather from looking back at the good times and lamenting that they weren’t enough. It’s a record all about not taking the people we care about for granted. A reminder that a moment shared is never a moment wasted. Monument tells us to fight through the pain, as we owe it to ourselves, to those we love, and to those we’ve lost, to live our lives to the fullest and love without reservation.