Intense, alluring and beautiful chanteuse Hannah Cohen releases her second album, ‘Pleasure Boy’, through Bella Union on 30th March 2015. It is the follow up to her debut, ‘Child Bride’ which was released in April 2012. Cohen was born in San Francisco but is now resident in New York where she has had a dual career as model and singer-songwriter of intensely personal songs – this decade’s Nico if you will.
Cohen’s latest release is a fascinating album which is a difficult listen at times. This isn’t because the music isn’t great – it is great, really great – it’s because it feels almost like Cohen has recorded an album of songs for her own consumption as a kind of musical therapy session and I wasn’t entirely sure if I should be listening. It felt a bit like accidentally discovering someone’s diary where they’ve poured out their most private of thoughts, knowing no-one else would every read it. You kind of want to turn the pages but you know you shouldn’t.
‘Pleasure Boy’, like her debut ‘Child Bride’, was produced by Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, who has worked with the likes of The National, Antony Hegarty and David Byrne. That’s not a bad pedigree and in addition to his production wizardry he also brings his talent as a pianist to proceedings. The dynamics of ‘Pleasure Boy’ was the result of Cohen and Bartlett, “bunkering down with my songs, experimenting with different tones and sounds, and layering them. My first record was so airy and roomy, I didn’t have patience for that again”.
“I wanted more movement, something more mysterious and witchier, so we created this sound wall together.”
If that was the aim then Cohen and Bartlett have certainly succeeded. The album has an intensely claustrophobic sense about it, dream like in parts, nightmarish in others. The sounds are mixed to produce aural textures that perfectly complement Cohen’s astounding vocals which are, at times, reminiscent of Harriet Wheeler from The Sundays (particularly on ‘Watching You Fall’) with a touch of Lana Del Rey throughout. The production creates layer upon layer of sound that brings new experiences with every listen. The sound of the album feels like someone has created something so personal that they aren’t fully letting you in and only after repeated listens do the songs trust you enough to let the barriers down. It’s very clever stuff from Cohen and Bartlett.
The album was primarily inspired by a painful break-up and the anxieties that loss can trigger and you can absolutely hear it and feel it in every song as Cohen lays it all out there and then works through those emotions – exorcising the demons of hurt – dealing with anger, loss, pain, sadness, regret and triumph but ultimately love. Love is really what this album is all about and Cohen’s nuanced soundscape of aching melancholy and lush melody perfectly conveys the different shades of heartbreak and the journey to refind love – of yourself and of others.
The album title arrived as the record took shape. “Pleasure Boy is a character of who it’s about, someone who represents gluttony and decadence and richness,” Cohen explains. She admits it was a tough record to make, given she was aiming to heal emotionally while feeling “devastated and hurt. “But it wouldn’t be the record it is if I hadn’t done that” Cohen says.
“I wanted the music to hurt, to have a visceral effect.”
She mostly wrote the album on guitar (except ‘Watching You Fall’ on autoharp and ‘I’ll Fake It’ on omnichord), though the album’s only guitar features on ‘Baby’. ‘Queen Of Ice’ features a saxophone spiralling like a ghost through the haunting, suspenseful mood and emotional fall-out (“Stone, ooh you’re made of stone / trace you fingers down my spine / watch me crumble before your eyes”). ‘Just Take The Rest’, the album’s lead single, has a Sixties vibe, while the album’s other uptempo cut ‘I’ll Fake It’ is more new wave-meets-cold-wave.
There are various facets to a break-up – ‘Watching You Fall’ is about “worrying about someone not being good to themselves”, ‘Keepsake’ is about “being in love with someone else, but still keeping me around” and the gorgeous ‘Claremont’ is a song “about love, and people close to me, about being weak in front of someone and being OK with that. It all came together on that song.” Cohen isn’t wrong about that.
Sometimes, the greeatest creativity comes from the most painful of experiences, and ‘Pleasure Boy’ is a beautiful example of what can happen when someone takes the power of experiential emotion to create something which describes but transcends the experience. Thankfully, Cohen has come out the other side and has found a new level of happiness, but ‘Pleasure Boy’ will forever be a document of what has clearly been an emotional phase in her life and we should be grateful that she has shared these musical diary pages with us.