Tuesday 25 October 2016

Kathryn Williams

The Bell Jar isn't exactly a bundle of laughs. The novel, written by Sylvia Plath and published under a pseudonym in 1963, charts the trials and tribulations of a young woman's quest to establish her own identity in a world of Mad Men-style button-down 1950s male chauvinism.

Plath described the book as "a potboiler" saying she felt it would illustrate "how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown..."

Written during her break-up with husband Ted Hughes, the novel appeared in print a month before Plath died, head in a gas oven.

Students study her work for the Leaving Cert now. In the Swinging Sixties, as the critical elite began to seriously engage with her legacy and schoolboys shuffled around with copies of Sartre or Kerouac sticking out of their arse pockets, we knew her as a cracking poet of immense fury and, through rumour, almost as a heroine of classical mythology.

Kathryn Williams has been making distinctive albums of rootsy allure since 1999. Two years ago, an invitation to write something about Plath for the Durham Book Festival's commemoration of The Bell Jar's 50th anniversary, led to her becoming captivated again by what she calls the book's "shocking, brutal honesty".

And so followed a series of songs inspired by events or characters in Plath's novel. With Ed Harcourt in tow as producer, Williams added the co-write Cuckoo to the list and set about recording this nine-track release.

In shunning the lazy stereotypical public image of an angsty, befuddled blue-stocking victim in favour of sharp poetic reportage, these songs do Plath a fine service.

It's not essential to have read the book to gain much from this repertoire. Williams' voice is a clear instrument of warmth and truth. No wonder Elbow's Guy Garvey rates her as his favourite singer.

Battleships, acoustic guitar and bass embedded in a duvet of gentle glitchy electronica, tells a story of the "ticking, ticking bomb" that lurks beneath the surface of a meeting between prospective suitors. As Williams all but whispers how the poem he wrote "sticks like sick in my throat", she captures the power of the great Weimar Cabaret writers. And Plath.

Cuckoo, written from the mother's perspective, is a piano-led meditation on the emotions felt in dealing with her daughter's mental illness. It's scary. "You were never someone I felt I had… I've got a cuckoo in my nest."

Williams has become an artist of considerable merit.


(One Little Indian)

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