Published on December 5th, 2016 | by Robert0
Review: Clara Engel | Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss
Minimalist avant-blues hymns originally recorded for solo guitar and voice, with contributions from musicians around the world, including Nadja’s Aidan Baker and Swans’ Thor Harris.
Australian listeners have an affinity for Canadian artists. We ‘get’ them, perhaps because our histories are similarly colonial and brutal, and we both have relatively small populations in our vast respective corners of the world.
We understand ‘the horror’ that lies within these immense landscapes…
Australians are terrified of the dead heart that beats in the desert centre of our island continent, so we squeeze ourselves into a handful of cities along the east coast; similarly our Canadian cousins cling to their southern border in fear of the frozen expanses bearing down on them from the north.
For us both, our natural environment is beautiful and inspiring, but we understand ‘the horror’ that lies within these immense landscapes.
Clara Engel’s new album, Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss, sits right at this intersection between beauty and darkness. The solo guitar and voice at the centre of this collection of songs is exquisite, but it is accompanied by an ever-present, unsettling menace that threatens to devour it.
They sound like the dead of winter and the hush of heavy snow
The first track, Swans, reminds me of a song by Low from Things We Lost in the Fire called Embrace. I remember when I first heard Embrace I was completely overwhelmed by its heavy intimacy. It felt like I was bearing witness to a deeply personal tragedy I wasn’t meant to see, like I’d walked in on a young couple holding the lifeless body of their baby after it had died during the night.
Swans has the same stark, funereal atmosphere and it too leaves me with the feeling that I’m listening in on something private that wasn’t meant for my ears; in this case, a lover’s lament. The guitar motif is as fragile and beautiful as a lullaby, but a malevolently dark synth drone threatens to envelop it at any moment; this encroaching gloom mirrors the brutally bleak imagery of Engel’s lyrics: ‘oil slick beach’, ‘feast for the birds’, ‘a mandrake’s red howl’.
Her voice certainly reminds me of Mimi Parker’s voice. They both sound like the dead of winter and the hush of heavy snow, but Engel’s is more earthy than ethereal. It’s unsettling and weary, reminiscent of Karen Dalton or Tiny Vipers’ Jesy Fortino.
By the second song — Uneasy Spirit — I’m starting to realise that my initial interpretation is a little weak. Darkness and beauty do coexist on this album, but the protagonist of these songs is actively summoning the forces of darkness that lurk in the corners of her songs.
She does, however, understand the tremendous cost of courting evil…
She’s transgressive, she’s Katie Cruel or maybe even Abigail Williams. She does, however, understand the tremendous cost of courting evil: “Your embrace is choking… my lover can’t reach me.” You could imagine Atom Egoyan or Sarah Polley adapting this for the screen. It’d be a Southern Ontario Gothic masterpiece.
Once again, the accompaniment is sparse but immersive — light hi-hat, the drone in this song comes from a held-note backing vocal, joined by an unsettling chorus of male voices in the second half of the song. The effect is eery and unnerving.
The third track, Swallow Me, is an incantation, where the heroine invites the listener to: “Swallow me and your body will grow into a twisted tree/your limbs will blossom into rain and snow/swallow me and I will take you home.” Is it the body of christ, or an hallucinogenic plant we’re being asked to ingest? The mandrake’s howl features in track one, so perhaps it’s the latter.
Whatever the case, the imagery is striking and disconcerting. Unlike the other songs on the album, the guitar isn’t the main focus in this track. The song begins with a drone of orchestral size, violin and accordion featuring prominently. A tolling, death knell-like sound emerges and it has a countervailing effect. I can’t tell if Engel is guided by the divine or the demonic; this tension between the binaries of good and evil, beauty and horror is what makes her album so compelling.
The fourth track is called Evil Queen. So has Engel been conjuring up the ghost of Lady Macbeth all along?
“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty…”
That interpretation fits nicely with the lyrical content of tracks two and three.
Maybe Engel’s voice and guitar is ‘the flower’ and the foreboding drone is ‘the serpent under’t’. I suppose it could be literal though. Perhaps the Evil Queen is just Snow White’s nemesis.
Whether or not the narrator is Macbeth or Snow White’s father, they’re both happy to let “[their] kingdoms burn, let them freeze,” because they are enthralled by their respective spouses’ awesome capacity for evil; they’re rendered utterly powerless by it.
The final track, Once a White Owl, is the creepiest of the collection. It features a repetitive, plucked minor chord accompanied by equilibrating strums of an autoharp. The song’s eeriness comes from the theremin and some truly haunting atmospherics from Nadja’s Aidan Baker and Swans’ Thor Harris. I love how these features circle at the edges of the song but retreat, never completely overwhelming Engel’s guitar and voice.
This verse is repeated:
Once a white owl came down
drank the colour from the world
the sun folded on itself
we couldn’t see our hands
It makes me think of the book I’m reading at the moment, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. It begins in late seventeenth century Canada and it follows a couple of French labourers who chop down trees for a settler that promises them land in return for three years’ unpaid service. It then traces the lives their descendants against a backdrop of European colonisation and its devastating effect on North America’s indigenous people and their environment.
Clara Engel’s Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss is its own richly detailed little universe; an otherworldly place you can escape to through your headphones. Like Linda Perhacs’ 1970 album, Parallelograms, which I only recently discovered, Visitors… presents the listener with a dialectical image of the natural world: at once carnal and beautiful, but malevolent and destructive.