Bess Atwell – Light Sleeper

An enriching return with hidden depths...

It’s been three years since Bess Atwell released a full-length album, and in that time the Brighton-based singer-songwriter has come to understand and challenge her reluctance to fully open up. The process of writing new material for her third album ‘Light Sleeper’ seems to have helped her discover a new vein of truth to her work and put aside previous insecurities. The result is a record which combines her distinctive lyrical skill with new sonic themes. 

The first track, ‘Everyone Who’s Not In Love With You is Wrong’, opens with an unexpectedly unsettling sound while Atwell’s close-up vocals release the lyrics gradually. It takes some time for the message to become clear, but once it does, it hits hard. “You called yourself broken / that’s just how people are / that’s how the light gets in / And I’m blinded.”

This and the next two tracks combine to build an introspective yet liberating picture. There’s an unmistakable Bess Atwell sound, but it feels enriched, no doubt thanks to the influence of producer Aaron Dessner (The National)). ‘Release Myself’ is arguably the album’s strongest song: there are synths, a forceful sort of build and a shimmering quality to it all. It’s timeless, triumphant and liberating, well illustrating Atwell’s skill at painting feelings and themes through music. ‘Sylvester’ follows: crisp, well sung, and held up on a beautiful lyrical framework of clever rhyming schemes.

That’s a firm start, although the strength wanes slightly in the subsequent two tracks. The attention is allowed to wander, although Atwell continues to drop gems of honest, modern poetry throughout, and all is beauty and warm light.

‘Something Now’ (based around a human-hummed part in place of an electronic synth) emerges from this quieter patch with a celebratory air: still reflective but more forward-looking. That theme continues in the acoustic guitar-rich ‘Spinning Sun’ which wends, winds, rises and falls with calming grace, while Atwell sings probably her most personal lines about mental health and how she copes.

The sound and energy of ‘I Am Awake’ is at odds with its title, but the sleepy musical base is set off by a straightforward lyricism which provides another insight into Atwell’s mind and emotions. Although unremarkable on its own, that song lays the ground well for the album’s final pair of tracks. 

‘Crowds’ begins simply but develops a shuffling rhythm and a multi-layered sound, with Atwell’s voice riding through with frankness. The album closes with the thrumming, insistent and multifaceted sounds of title track ‘Light Sleeper’. Here Atwell melds acoustic and electronic elements while her personal lyrics tell of insecurity and acceptance. The sense is one of coming full circle, with Atwell returning to the theme of facing fears as a way of moving past them, and being willing and able to wholeheartedly “feel”.

Some may say Atwell could have opened up further, but there’s no doubt this is an album of depth which deserves repeat listens and which will be loved by her fans as well as enjoyed by newcomers. 

7/10

Words: Phil Taylor

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