Sunday 1 January 2017

My Favourite Albums of 2016: #1 Clare Maguire - Stranger Things Have Happened

If you’ve read all of the 24 posts that have preceded this one, counting down my favourite albums of the year, you’ll have noticed a couple of key points running through the writing. 

First, that for artists, sometimes it takes a little time to get it right. So even when maybe they don’t live up to the initial hype that often attaches itself to musicians just breaking through, we shouldn’t necessarily write them off. If there is genuine talent there, that will, if given space and more than a few minutes in the limelight, come good. Unfortunately, often record labels don’t see it that way; there’s way too much short term thinking in the music industry. 

Second that 2016 has been the year of things titled Stranger Things; the TV show, the soundtrack, the band that made the soundtrack and now this – an album called Stranger Things Have Happened.

Yes, Clare Maguire, an artist who first appeared on this blog way back in January 2009 and was featured on the BBC Sound of 2011 really delivered the goods in 2016. 

Ironically, in that first post back in 2009 I mentioned a song Clare had recorded called Strangest Thing, suggesting it was exuberant, modern and commanding. That song doesn’t appear on this album, but instead we get twelve pieces of musical gold, flecked with painful emotional honesty. They may not be particularly modern sounding, but they’re all the better for it.

Whereas Clare’s debut Light After Dark was largely an over produced beast that picked up some pretty scathing reviews (Laura Snapes writing for the NME described it as containing ‘songs that’d sound a bit sexless at a WI Christmas party’ – ouch) Stranger Things Have Happened strips everything back, allows the songs to breathe and gives Maguire the chance to really let her vocal shine. 

That shine doesn’t mean just big ballsy belters though (although she gives Adele a run for her money on Elizabeth Taylor and out souls most soul singers on Here I Am) but, subtle, nuanced beauties. Faded, with its jazzy piano, strings and brushed drums sounds like something you might find a band like Tindersticks playing in a dimly lit, velvet lined coffee bar. Swimming finds Maguire vocals adopting a sultry warble as she coos of what appears to be a dark enslaving relationship. “Whatever makes you bad, makes me want you,” she starts, before swiping out with a startling compulsive obsessiveness: “Fuck it now, life can wait, give me adrenaline when I wake. I’m bored as hell, and you’re my closest heaven, and there’s the clue, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do, if you needed me when I needed you.”

One of the criticisms of Light After Dark was that it felt like all of Maguire’s personality and experience had been sucked out of it. That Clare had become a pawn in the record label machine. That certainly isn’t the case here. Throughout Stranger Things Have Happened there’s a deep intimacy, both lyrically, musically and in the way that Clare sings the words. Take the title track, a fairytale quiet song reminiscent of 50’s movies and Portishead without the beats. It finds Clare cooing almost creepily (in a good way) at a range higher than we’ve ever heard before: “Walking off the sapphire blues, carrying my shoes, drinking in those drunken stares, unprepared, I don’t care.” It’s superb goosebump raising stuff.

That Maguire has had to go through a tough old time to get to this point (she’s been through alcohol addiction and some depression) makes this album even the more extraordinary. It’s a collection of songs that adopts a variety of different styles, but still sounds like a full, deep and cohesive body of work.

Rather like my favourite album of last year (Oh Wonder’s debut) this isn’t an album that you’ll find on many end of year critics lists. I don’t know why. But all I do know is that this is the most beautiful and affecting body of work I’ve heard all year. My album of 2016. No contest.

Clare Maguire - Whenever You Want It

Clare Maguire - Here I Am (Video)

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