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'Murmurations': A smooth, gritty debut

Ella Clayton's first album marks a transition from acoustic to folk-rock, and reveals a dogged songwriter fully coming into her own. 

October 07 2022, 17.03pm
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Like any promising newcomer (to the LP scene, anyway; she’s been on the acoustic circuit, on YouTube and on Soundcloud for some years), Ella Clayton is difficult to pin down. But you do come away from her debut album, Murmurations, retro-shipping Alexi Murdoch and Laura Marling; if these two had a musical offspring, surely, that offspring would jive and rock a bit like her. That’s not to say Clayton is a mere sum of discernible, familiar parts; there are rhythms, turns of lyrical and musical phrase, and a steady rock engine under the lead acoustic that are entirely her own. There’s also a reflective, critical and compassionate mind combined with a “fuck it” fighting spirit that will have you coming away from this album, laden with partings and endings though it is, surprisingly better off than you arrived. 

 

Smooth and melodic delivery carries tracks that are expansive and thought-through, with more than one giving the impression of being lived and hard-won. Alongside the heartache, there’s gritty optimism that kicks in at some point on almost every song; nowhere more emphatically than on the title track, where the perfectly timed beat-drop throws this melancholic reproach to a past lover - who passed through Brighton and never bothered to call - into renewed determination, right on the phrase “maybe it’s better this way.” A more complex change of key ties together the excellent For Any Man: the singer throws her exasperation at an inattentive, demanding lover; swoons into love again, just by taking another look; and reverts to reasserting her own worth, independent of the affair. Only Bodies is a warm, loose, longing invitation to suspend overthinking if only for a short while, and enjoy the touch both people involved know they understand. “Always” is a near-perfect articulation of helpless longing, sweet as a glass of wine at that point of night when it’s impossible to sleep but far too late to call. 

 

This isn’t to say this debut album is a perfect one. Some of the tracks were written very early on, years and years back in what is still a very young career, and it shows. He Moves Me - a catchy break on an often sombre album - knows its main attraction is the crowd-pleasing, sing-along refrain, but that’s no reason to keep a lyric like “...then he disrobes, and we delight / in pleasures yet untold”: especially on an otherwise lyrically sound album, the tackiness jumps out. Musically, Foolish Man still feels like a work in progress in everything from lyrics, to arrangement, and even to Clayton’s voice; she has a enviably wide, husky-smooth and confident range that’s even better live, but here she sticks to an uncomfortable middle register, like a special-effects aircraft flying at an improbable angle: it never crashes, but you almost wish it did. This track could probably be disassembled into a few good songs for a second album down the line, but it really isn’t ready to book-end the excellent Murmurations on the first. 

 

A much better candidate for closing the album is the penultimate number, The Day After. It’s probably the most mature composition on the LP, musically and lyrically both. It’s also darker: redemption here isn’t assured, it’s conditional, and the guitars and percussion flow like an inky river, undulating on a melodic bass line smooth as waves and as dry as driftwood (on bass is Lester Duval, who produced and engineered the entire album.) If this song is a promise of what’s to come, there’s much to look forward to. “Pull me under, baby”, the opening lyric goes. It’s hard to say no.