There are a few bands or musical artists of whom it’s possible to say that ‘their first album is the best’. It can happen that the first chance that someone gets to record, they do so with a combination of energy and creative clarity that they will not match again—and I suspect that this becomes more likely the more commercial success they achieve with that first release. However, on the majority of occasions those words are spoken, they tell you more about the speaker than the musicians under discussion. They’re a way of signalling that you’ve been aware of this fashionable act for longer than other people, and they’re a way of pretending that you have something interesting to say about the music. For the most part, for me, the pleasure to be found in following someone’s career across a number of releases is precisely in witnessing their departure from the particular virtues that fuelled their earlier efforts—in sharing in their artistic growth. That is certainly the case with regard to Josienne Clarke, who gets more interesting and more creatively daring with every release. On A Small Unknowable Thing she travels a road that’s not utterly surprising if you’ve listened to 2019’s In All Weather, but which doubles down on her departure from ‘folk’ (whatever that means) and demonstrates a continued interest in sonic and stylistic experimentation. A particular favourite of mine is ‘Sit Out’, which is a kind of quiet doom headbanger, in which Clarke’s own distorted, unhinged saxophone playing stands in for the role usually fulfilled by a lead guitar. I don’t have the credits to hand, and I’m not sure they’d give me a detailed track-by-track breakdown if I did, but what’s clear is that Clarke is at the wheel of these arrangements, not just singing on them, and that she’s doing a lot more of the playing than she did during her long collaboration with Ben Walker. The result is a more inventive and daring record than any she’s previously put her name to (in my fundamentally irrelevant opinion, at any rate).
That’s not to say that Thing is a completely novel creature. It has many facets in common with its predecessor, and there are aspects of Clarke’s practice which are present throughout her recorded oeuvre. Her vocal delivery still has the limpid, tranquil clarity that captivated me when I heard it for the first time at CB1 in Cambridge, even on rockers like ‘Sit Out’ and ‘The Collector’. She’s still a proud misery guts, an aesthetic position that serves her well even (or especially) when she’s singing something ostensibly positive. She’s still a wry and considered wordsmith, smuggling a kind of ebullience into even the darkest affective moments, by way of her irrepressible pleasure in language and wordplay—and she still has a great ear for a striking image. On extended, repeated listening (which is kind of obligatory with a record so rich in detail as this one), I found myself wishing for a bit more variety in the way Clarke’s songs are structured grammatically. Without having actually counted, it feels like a lot of these songs feature a first person narrator addressing a second person interlocutor, which inevitably puts the listener inside the song. This kind of semantic intimacy is a very powerful and involving tool, which combines with Clarke’s restraint as a vocalist to make the listener feel very close to the drama, but without many other narrative positions for contrast, a few more ‘they’s, ‘he’s or ‘she’s, it began to feel slightly claustrophobic for me. This may of course be the point, and I don’t want to second-guess Clarke’s considerable creative self-awareness, but it didn’t feel like the point to me. That one reservation aside, this is among the most involving records I’ve listened to over the past year, and among the most well crafted. Josienne Clarke is a writer, arranger and performer of rare facility and judgement, and it’s exciting to hear the risks she’s willing to take as she progresses. That part of her audience that just likes tinkly folk stylings will probably be disappointed by her developing direction, but those that had understood what it was that was good about her work to start with will be with her all the way. I’m excited for her next release, not because I want more of the same, but because I know she’s going to do something new.