Ashley Paul premiered the songs that make up ‘Lost In Shadows’ at the 2017 Counterflows festival in Glasgow, where she was the featured artist. That set, which saw Paul supported by an ensemble featuring brass, cello and percussion, in addition to her own vocals, guitar and saxophone, seemed to presage a change of direction for the songwriter. The pieces exhibited a lush, almost exotic melodicism – Tropicalia as performed by Annette Peacock – that felt a world away from the stark frameworks of records like 2014’s ‘Heat Source’.
Listening to ‘Lost In Shadows’ a year or so after that initial exposure, I’m not so sure. The 11 tracks, recorded in Spain a few months before that festival performance, feel now like an evolution rather than revolution. Paul’s chiming, dissonant guitar lines remain, as do her hushed, mantra-like vocals. But warm surges of clarinet and tuba, sympathetic cello and jolts of percussion open out Paul’s previously hermetic style, while occasional stabs of sustained, abrasive saxophone ensure her distinctive astringent edge isn’t subsumed into elegance.
‘Breathless Air’ is a case in point. With the fatigued, barely-there feel of a New Orleans marching band the morning after Mardi Gras, it’s reminiscent of when Radiohead drafted in Humphrey Lyttleton to add avant-garde parps to their ‘Kid A / Amnesiac’ sessions. This works a whole lot better though, Paul meticulously sewing her exhausted skronks and listless plunks into the fabric of the song, rather than grafting them on as an afterthought.
The distinctive sound of ‘Lost in Shadows’ comes from Paul’s determination to integrate her experiences of caring for a new baby into her aesthetic. Some of this is mimetic, such as the strange mewling cries and gurgles in ‘What Happens’ that evoke the pre-lingual exhortations of a newborn. And that saxophone, with its laser-like ability to slice through almost any other sound, is a pretty good approximation of an infant’s ability to beam its helpless screams straight into the brains of its mother, wherever they are in the house.
But it’s the particular mood of frazzled jitter produced by ‘Lost In Shadows’ that really reactivates those early parenting memories. This record, more than anything else I’ve heard, hits the weirdness of new parenthood right on the head. That strange diurnal adjustment you have to make when you realise that this little person in your care has no interest in the usual timetables of the social world, but instead wakes, feeds and sleeps as their own needs dictate.
And the resultant feeling of being at one remove from the world, of moving through the landscape as a kind of ghost – eyes gritty, skin sallow, hair untameable – is brilliantly conjured by ‘Lost In Shadows’. Tracks like ‘Night Howl’ mix precision and disorientation with canny skill, the creeping lullaby of guitar and vocal shifted off-balance by an ominous bass drone and woozy, piercing saxophone motif that winds itself around the song like a crumpled bedsheet. It’s a kind of delirium (to quote the record’s penultimate track) – yet it’s one that has provided Ashley Paul with a rich source of artistic inspiration. Never has the pram in the hall seemed like less of a barrier to creativity.