This debut album from ex-Pipettes star Rose Elinor Dougall starts with a sudden jolt; the brash, urgent ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’ is as instantly attention-grabbing as Joanna Newsom’s ‘Peach, Plum, Pear’, pairing the baroque sound of the harpsichord to an insistent drumbeat, adding up to something unusual and intriguing that gives few clues as to what shape the album as a whole will take. After such a spiky opener, it is a surprise rather than a disappointment to find that the manner in which Without Why pans out from here is mature, self-assured and unerringly sophisticated.
‘Come Away With Me’ is redolent of The Smiths, with both the guitar work and the melody of the vocal recalling a Morrissey-like melancholia, but the song is accomplished and effective enough to move beyond pastiche, and the bittersweet melody undercuts the buoyant, hopeful lyric to subtly moving effect. As Dougall asks “Will you just take my hand and come away with me?” on the refrain, the music beneath the lyric suggests she perhaps already is aware of the answer.
Melancholy and doubt prove to be the defining moods of the record, though both are refracted through differing styles and genres. Songs that sound superficially upbeat, like ‘Carry On’, prove to have a surprising bleakness at their core, suggesting that perhaps the moodiness of Dougall’s press shots – in which she often stares confrontationally at the camera like ’90s-era Shirley Manson – is no mere play acting. And, importantly, it feels entirely genuine, ensuring that material that could have been almost comical in lesser hands is pulled off with aplomb. The stalker narrative of ‘Watching’ is a prime example, Dougall’s sinister creation being all the more interesting for its understated delivery.
While not exactly groundbreaking, the album bears its influences coyly. Thus, while her phrasing is at times reminiscent of The Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler and favourable comparisons have already been drawn (by others) to ex-Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, Dougall remains unquestionably her own artist with her own distinctive presence. What’s more, Without Why confirms that this presence is deserving of attention, boldly underlining that Dougall is an exciting, still-emerging talent who has produced a polished and coherent debut album at the age of twenty-four.
Peculiarly captivating, the album’s pleasurable sadness envelops the listener and prompts a string of wistful reveries. The handclaps on ‘Another Version Of Pop Song’ may fleetingly recall The Pipettes, but on this moving and accomplished record Dougall has truly transcended her pop past.
[Scarlett Music; August 29]