On her debut album, Anna Calvi created odd, fleeting, dark spaces – leaving room where the twang of her guitar echoed. One Breath a far denser with more layers, more instruments. From the use of electronics to copious bass guitar tones and the addition of a chorus of swooning strings here and there, it seems more compact, oddly claustrophobic. Where before we were out on rain slickened, neon streaked streets now we’re all crammed into a velure and chintz de-draped railway carriage on some oddly discombobulating midnight journey somewhere. Somewhere dark and sexy, no doubt.
This is not to say that there’s a huge breakaway from Anna Calvi. There couldn’t really be, as Calvi’s voice is so distinctive and her guitar work as assured as before. But there does seem to be a conscious attempt to involve more elements than previously. Having established her chops as an axemaster, Calvi can step back a bit and vary the instrumentation. It takes some of the onus off the guitar and, where before her sweeping virtuosity was a defining feature, now she can strip back, the back beat keeping the song going augmented by other bits and blips, twangs and plucks. Suddenly her guitar is guttural interjections, somehow more telling and important.
‘Suddenly’ opens up with a stark, roomy, rhythmic simplicity, before flowering, via the wailing refrain. Calvi fills the space so well. There’s an explosion of clanging guitar, and the repeated lilt of the melody to the end, encapsulating her career thus far in one tune. The first single ‘Eliza’ boots along at nice pace and includes a guitar solo, just in case you might have forgotten Calvi’s expertise in this department. Yeah, it’s mad, isn’t it? A girl!
Use of a processed beats on ‘Piece by Piece’ suggest she’s not afraid of going off into weird places. Weird for Anna Calvi, that is. There’s a danger that it may sound forced, affected, but it doesn’t, it works. ‘Cry’s staccato rhythms are broken by brief eruptions of noise, while ‘Sing to Me’ is entirely stripped back, ghostly lines augment understated guitar and sine-y bass. Inevitably it builds up, unleashing the strings which swirl around her Theremin-like keening. An entire Trevor Howard movie in three minutes. That kind of drama. The Tristans of the world finally get their own song in ‘Tristan’, another wailing melody over some hammered dulcimer. Calvi has failed to create an unhummable hook on this record. She husks on the title track before it dissolves into a chamber piece. ‘Love of my Life’ sits right next to it, fuzzed and aggressive. She sings like a chanteuse who’s just thrown a party no one turned up to in ‘Bleed Into Me’, her voice soaring away into the shadowy corners of the song. The album ends with ‘The Bridge’, ushered into an aching darkness a-cappella style.
Anna Calvi is maturing her sound, creating more depth and layers, but it’s also familiar enough to keep fans onside. She’s never really going to veer too far from her mean, given that her voice and guitar playing are so distinctive, but there’s enough ideas and changes in delivery here to suggest that she will not rest on those talents, and that it’s a real talent at work. There’ll never be the impact of the debut record again – you only get one of those – but often there’s trouble in trying to replicate that initial bang, and a fear in moving away from the formula that put you on the map. Anna Calvi hasn’t tried, she’s just moved onto the next thing and, while it hints at a rich future, it also makes for a damn good right now.