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“I wanted to make an upbeat confident pop record about depression and being a performer, written from the viewpoint of an artist who has hollowed himself out over a long career in the name of success, an alternate universe version of me, who is left empty and lonely from climbing to the top, but is still only able to express these feelings in the language of confident, performative pop songs.”

 

Today, Keaton Henson has released his stunning seventh studio album, House Party, via Play It Again Sam.

 

House Party is Keaton Henson as you’ve never heard him before; a conceptual and sonic departure that sees him inhabit a parallel version of himself who, from the outset, aggressively pursued fame and all its trappings. This narrator, who is embodied by the pink-suited Keaton of the Tristan Pigott-designed album artwork and imagery, also allows over the course of 12 stunning and pop-driven tracks, the real Keaton to explore his own story and motivation.

 

Since the release of his debut album Dear… in 2010, he’s garnered superlatives for a succession of fragile explorations in anxiety and separation. Detouring into the realm of modern classical music, Six Lethargies (2016) was three years in the making, an experience in which listeners were given a sense of how the world appears to people who have to manage mental illness on a day-to-day basis. Written during the final months of his ailing father’s life, 2020’s Monument elicited career-best reviews, among them Uncut, who described the record as “a deeply personal and poignant exploration of loss.” 

 

For Henson though, it was becoming impossible to avoid the looming sense that he could no longer sustain this way of working. At the very beginning of his career, the songwriting ingenue had a formative encounter with “a film director who ended up  becoming something of a mentor to me.” Henson recalls: “They told me to find the part of myself that I’m willing to give away. So I gave away the side of me that’s brooding and depressed – and that’s what you can hear on pretty much all my records up to this point.” 

Now married and “happier than I’ve ever been”, Henson started to feel that advice that had served him so well in the years up to this point had exhausted its purpose. Swapping London for the Sussex countryside had the welcome effect of letting more light into his life and – if the melodies on House Party are anything to go by – his music too. The careworn clatter of pivotal records by Big Star, The Replacements and The Only Ones provided earworms and fresh inspiration, helping him assemble a team that could replicate that noise in the real world: Matt Ingram (Laura Marling, Staves), Harry Deacon (Gaz Coombes, Willie J Healey) and, on guitar, the legendary “Little” Barrie Cadogan (Edwyn Collins, The The). Stepping up to co-produce were Luke Smith (Foals, Depeche Mode) and Fiona Cruickshank (Paul Weller, Dot Allison). Henson explains that coaxing the right sound from his co-travellers wasn’t difficult. “There were a couple of songs where I basically said, ‘I want it to sound like it should fit really well on the Ten Things I Hate About You soundtrack’.”   

 

Henson says that once he knew he was making a pop album, something inside him was allowed to run free. The stakes were somehow lowered. Take, for instance, the blissfully bleary ache of Envy – one of several choruses on the record that resound in your head long after the needle reaches the runout groove.

 

Henson says that when he wrote the song, he was trying to channel the fist-pumping triumphalism of Britpop. However, that’s not something altogether apparent to anyone listening to the song. What you hear instead is perhaps something closer to the tender consolation songs of Teenage Fanclub. It’s almost as if, in this parallel world, the guy in the pink suit – arrestingly depicted on the sleeve of House Party by acclaimed figurative artist Tristan Pigott – is starting to fall apart before real-life Keaton has fully clocked it. 

 

Watch the ‘Envy’ music video:

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Late To You is a beautiful defences-down apology from an artist who had forgotten what he started fighting for.

 

“Before we finally got together, [Henson’s wife] Dani and I had this long-distance relationship for years. I really should have committed earlier. And when I did,  I just realised I was at the point where the thought of blowing this opportunity for happiness no longer bore thinking about. It’s a song about having squandered the best of myself being an artist when I should have been saving it for her. Or to sum up, ‘What’s left of me is so much less than you deserve, but would you please take it anyway?’” 

 

Watch the ‘Late To You’ music video:

play video

Keaton narrates themes of love throughout House Party, including the exploration of toxic and codependent relationships, ‘Two Bad Teeth, and ‘Parking Lot’ with its us-against-the-world mentality. Elsewhere, the true desperation and sadness of the pink suited character is told. ‘The Mine’ acts almost as the album’s centrepiece – the moment the facade falls, the music is sparse, the band have left the room, and the true loneliness of the character is witnessed.

 

The chanting ‘Hide Those Feelings’ that closes the album is Keaton’s final word – a somewhat sarcastic summary and universal mantra on how everyone is masking their true feelings. 

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