If, for Anna B Savage fans, it has felt like a long wait for this, her debut album, that’s because it has been. The question is, has it been worth that wait? It’s nearly six years since the release of ‘EP’, with its tracks, ‘I’, ‘II’, ‘III’ and IV’. On the undoubted, shining strength of that EP, a then seemingly more taciturn and mysterious Anna B found herself the subject of serious attention from the likes of Father John Misty (whom she now affectionately calls her “music dad”) and Jenny Hval. Savage supported both on European tours.
As I remember, Anna B was harder to find then; few online images if any, a handful of local gigs, and an odd, scratchy little website. But, suddenly in a Misty spotlight, Anna seemed to disappear a bit more. The promotional material for the album explains that EP’s success caught her off guard, triggered a form of imposter syndrome, stifled her writing and affected her mental health. At her lowest, Savage wasn’t sure she could continue making music, and there are themes of that on the album, most vividly on ‘Dead Pursuits’ where she sings, “Three years and still worried it’s a mediocre album… Is anyone listening?” closing with a simple repeated line, “I can’t do it”.
More recently, songs have been appearing, on Facebook and elsewhere, and it felt like she was slowly stepping back into the light. ‘A Common Turn’ returns her to full glare. The obvious, immediate focus is on Savage’s extraordinary voice; a thing of deep, melancholy beauty. There are moments, for example on ‘Corncrakes’, ‘One’, or ‘Hotel’, when – aware of its centrality to her art – she allows us to hear it pretty much totally unaccompanied. It’s a voice that perhaps sits somewhere near Anonhi’s, or Nina Simone’s, with an ability to soar that is perhaps innate in this child of opera singers.
The voice is authentic, strong, vulnerable and mesmerising, and it is enough in its own right to justify her work – but the album stretches beyond her astonishing vocal, with a soundscape and a complexity not necessarily expected from her earlier work. With songwriting varied, exciting, and compelling, this is a work of chiaroscuro, with quiet and yearning, energy and uplift to compare with any. There is a subtlety, a challenge and variety of sound and technique that repays repeated, careful, headphones listening.
Across all ten songs there is a brittle emotional openness (“It has been said that I am strong, and they’re not entirely wrong… but I ran, I ran, I ran’”) and a simplicity and candour about female sexual pleasure, mental health, and relationships (evident on the new single, ‘Baby Grand’) which generate the album’s sense of honesty and intimacy. At times, on tracks like ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’, there is a Jeff Buckley-esque bombast, and if the album reminds me of anything else, it might be his ‘Grace’.
“For the last three years, focused and re-energised” Savage has been writing this album. Has it been worth the wait? Hell yes. This is in no way the mediocre album she might have feared. It is a most uncommon turn, an album you’ll reach for years from now; a voice you’ll long to hear in both the dark and light times.
Is it too early to start pressing a claim for ‘album of the year’?