A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord.Ascription for Psalm 102, King James Version
The Art of Losing, the second album by Catherine Anne Davies working as The Anchoress, hits where the listener lives. Lyrically erudite? You bet; Davies borrows the title from American poet Elizabeth Bishop, quotes a roster of literary titans from Julian of Norwich and C.S. Lewis to Margaret Atwood and Jorge Luis Borges in the liner notes, and eagerly inhales their words of wisdom on the album sleeve. Musically sophisticated? Again, a slam dunk; along with her compelling writing and powerful, nuanced singing, Davies plays most of the instruments with gusto, creates the unique sound world only a true studio virtuoso could, and pulls influences from Depeche Mode to modern classicist Max Richter into the mix.
But that’s all secondary, picked up on repeated listens, trailing in the wake of this music’s overwhelming initial impact. Davies’ keenly honed portrayals of mayhem, trauma, loss and grief (reflections of her recent life) suck you into a maelstrom where happiness is barely a consideration. The question she insistently asks on The Art of Losing is: how to endure?
How to endure being treated like a possession — by responding in kind? (“The Exchange”) How to endure in a world where the wicked and unjust prosper (“Show Your Face,” rocking like a truck full of bricks as Davies snarls the chorus)? How to endure the ache of separation, the innumerable endings that life inevitably brings (the uneasily propulsive title track and “Unravel”)? The preternaturally quiet “5 AM” arrives at the abyss: just piano, cello and Davies’ unflinching vocal, recounting incidents of domestic abuse, sexual assault and baby loss, implacably inventorying the damage that comes for no reason, beyond what others think you are or owe them.
Groping for a path forward, Davies broods on the nature of sacrifice in “The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter”, then explodes on the fierce incantation “My Confessor”. “With the Boys” brings another hushed, apocalyptic reckoning, as Davies tallies up the price of her choices– and concludes they’ve been worth making:
All of my life I’ve been waiting for something I might call my own
And learn to hold something inside
A voice unworn that gets a little louder when you laugh at me
And tell me not to speak
And she goes round and round
Chasing circles with the palm of her hand
She got to be good got to be certain if she wants to play
With the boys . . .
But I can’t and I won’t shut my mouth this time
Can’t control what you don’t know
What was it you were hoping for guarding all the doors?
Guarding all the doors?
The Anchoress’ answers to the inherent ache of life — of embodiment in a broken world where, seemingly beyond redemption, we love things and use other people — aren’t cheap, easy or sentimental. But they are cathartic and genuinely moving. At the end of The Art of Losing, endurance is the only viable solution (and quite possibly its own reward); the acceptance of time’s passage and the willingness to continue is the only possibility worth pursuing. Where the strength to do it comes from — yourself? Others? Someone you pour out your complaint to? — may remain a mystery. But by channeling her (and our) dilemma into 45 minutes of ambitious, irresistible art-pop, Catherine Anne Davies has given us an undeniable gift. Open it for yourself and listen below:
— Rick Krueger