More about: Kelly Lee Owens
The mercurial nature of Kelly Lee Owens’ self-titled debut won it cross-genre appeal, and guaranteed that it would mean different things to different people; arguments as to the record’s finest moment would be built on whether the listener was drawn in by its deep rooting in trance, its subversion of modern techno, or the gauzy influence of dream pop that wound its way through the ten tracks. What wasn’t in doubt, though, is that the album was called Kelly Lee Owens for a reason; it was a profoundly personal piece of work, both in musical terms - she melded sounds as if on a mission to produce her mind’s eye’s idea of what electropop should be - and emotionally, too, finding room for both club-ready vivacity and after-hours introspection.
That Owens has, by her own vague admission, experienced the hardest three years of her life in the time that’s passed since was always likely to mean that the follow-up would be every bit as experiential as its predecessor, and that’s something the title, lifted from jazz maverick Alan Silva’s seminal record of the same name, appears to confirm. Inner Song’s gestation has been prolonged by factors both within Owens’ own life and outwith it, too (the pandemic put it back by nearly four months) but both the personal difficulties she’s faced and the weight of expectation after Kelly Lee Owens’ universally positive reception seemed to have forced her to reach deeper within herself than even last time, both musically and spiritually.
The result is an album scored through with idiosyncrasies, even if the focus is evidently less laser-guided than before. Owens was working towards a very specific vision on her first album, but Inner Song feels freer, with the stylistic divergences driven more by creative restlessness than some predetermined idea of what constitutes electronic perfection. The first case in point is the audacious opener, a reinvention of Radiohead’s ‘Arpeggi’ entirely in Owens’ own image. It’s deceptively simple, a series of interlocking synth loops over a minimalist beat, and yet it rings out with tension, bringing the curtain up in dramatic fashion. There are other curveballs, too, including an unlikely collaboration with John Cale on ‘Corner of My Sky’; over a foreboding instrumental, Owens’ compatriot part-speaks, part-sings a thickly atmospheric paean to their native Wales. As with ‘Arpeggi’, it’s a gamble, not least in her decision to directly involve one of her heroes, and it pays off thrillingly.
That said, the successes that define Inner Song are the ones that build upon the blueprint that her debut laid down. Just as that record did, its successor deals in both throw down and slow down. Sometimes, that’s in the same track, as ‘Night’ proves in its progression from woozy ambience to a juddering finale (Owens pulls a similar sleight-of-hand trick with the lyrics, with the repeated line “it feels so good to be alone” cast in a different light by the final minute’s addendum of “with you”). She plays with different shades throughout Inner Song - light and dark, fast and slow, taut and loose.
There’s space left open for the languid likes of ‘Flow’ and ‘Re-Wild’ to meander into; the latter’s sultry R&B stylings recall not just Owens’ own cover of Aaliyah’s ‘More Than a Woman’, long a staple of her live shows, but also the kind of hazy territory that the last Warpaint album explored. Elsewhere, her well-documented grounding in techno resurfaces keenly, particularly on ‘Melt!’, a club banger for the climate crisis that - in keeping with her appetite for the unusual - samples both collapsing glaciers and the metaphorically-loaded sound of skaters on thin ice.
And then, at the centre of the record, there’s the sharpest example of this hard-soft dichotomy. The one-two of ‘Jeanette’ and ‘L.I.N.E.’ forms the axis around which the rest of Inner Song revolves; the former a high-tempo behemoth constructed from a single, nervy synth line, and the latter something entirely different. That ‘L.I.N.E.’ stands for “love is not enough” provides you with some insight as to what the track itself represents within the context of Inner Song; it’s precisely the kind of lilting pop soother that Beach House would kill for.
More than that, though, it reckons with heartbreak, and the universal struggle between attachment and independence. In that regard, it’s a reminder that, for all the artifice, for all the unconventional blurring of sonic boundaries, and for all the experimentation, Inner Song is very much an album with a beating heart. If Owens’ technical wizardry was enough to put her on a par with her peers from the outset, then it’s the level of emotional intelligence she imbues her work with that makes her the leading light of UK electronic.
Inner Song is released on 28 August 2020 via Smalltown Supersound.
More about: Kelly Lee Owens