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London’s Emmanuel Centre, 2013. Completely absorbed by his performance, I watched Keaton Henson do his thing – as an audience, we watched him fight the nerves he’s known for and make it to the end of, quite frankly, the most breath-taking gig I’ve ever attended. His anxious demeanour as well as his concentration on art and poetry this year made me question when and whether Keaton would release more music yet, only days ago, the answer arrived: Keaton has dropped a surprise, exclusively-online album, a side-project named Behaving.
Using the (presumably temporary, so I’m calling him Keaton) alter-ego of ‘Behaving’, the artist breaks into a genre he’s only lightly experimented with before. Giving us nine tracks of emotive and electronic bliss, Keaton strays away from the directly hard-hitting style of his previous work (Dear, Birthday, Romantic Works) and evolves his sound into something much more suitable for times when you don’t want to bawl your eyes out (I’m talking to you, Birthday).
Beginning with Shower, we’re first encountered by a slightly confusing and messy combination of subtle beats that sound like something your gran might make on Garage Band if she had a few too many glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. However, Keaton’s voice brings his brilliance back into perspective and leads us into Don’t Dance, a track that comes into its own around the 1:30 mark. In third track False Alarms, Keaton’s main instrument of choice for his previous albums, the piano, returns to accompany yet again soft rhythms.
The sound of horse and carriages echoes through The River, a song that would fit snugly into the soundtrack of a war film, as Keaton questions whether he’s a [something undecipherable], a river, a cold lake or a giver. This leads us to Preacher: a weaker track that possibly brings the album down a notch in quality. Apart from giving himself up to someone and desiring their approval, it’s hard to tell what the artist’s backstory is for this one, simply because the vocals are so unclear. Following on from this, piano-heavy Offerings begins with a sound similar to the one I would hear if I shook a spoon around in my cereal bowl (post-Weetabix). Keaton redeems himself here though, delivering what could pass as a James Blake creation with plenty of unusual noises.
Vivisect reminds us of Keaton’s epic lyrical misery and also provides relatable lines for students such as “I wish I didn’t wake up today” and “I’ve been thinking of leaving” (this essay until tomorrow). Something tells me his meaning is a lot more serious though – in fact, this song succeeds in being both a cry for help and one of the worst pre-drink tracks ever. Penultimate Healing overlaps layers of voice and piano and steadies us for the final number, Confessional. By far the most calming part of Behaving, yet maybe the most disturbing, Keaton numbs us with piano from his haunting inner dialogue and the hopefully untrue line, “I’ve had enough of writing”.
On the whole, Behaving is a lot slower than debut album Dear and relieves us from the soulful depth of Birthday, but it’s still quite emotionally painful to listen to. Especially, I imagine, if you’re unfamiliar with what Keaton’s done beforehand. Perhaps to emphasise his electronic alter-ego, the tone of his voice has been made lower for many of the tracks and personally I prefer it when his voice is as raw as his lyrics, unedited. Yet, like all of us do sometimes, Keaton felt the need for a distinct change. He still manages to deliver a heartfelt album with a focus on love and heartbreak like always, whilst catering for the more electronically-inclined as well as his faithful listeners up until now.