Bella Hardy’s latest album, With the Dawn, opens with ‘The Only Thing To Do’, which pairs tense, anticipatory vocals with rumbling drums and brass. The drumbeat feels slightly ’90s, mixing heartache (“should I hide a broken heart?”) with motion. The lyrics would also work as traditionally-oriented poems on the page, neatly rhyming and tucked-in, mingling ‘the city’ with silver birches and hills.
‘First Light of the Morning’ begins with what sounds like banjo and warm brass notes underneath, the sunrise after the ‘night’ of the first song: “I walked across fields that knew my name”. It’s essentially a dramatic, consciously poetic love story set to music. The voice feels pitched from the head, silvery-high.
‘The Darkening of the Day’ is more cheerful, traditional folk, finding unlikely comfort in the arrival of dusk, pastoral. ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier’ is set in the First World War, absorbed in history, in the vein of The Unthanks’ work. Hardy’s voice strains on the high notes, but it’s heartfelt. ‘You Don’t have to Change’ feels like Laura Groves’ work as Blue Roses, but overly strained now, working hard: I wonder if Hardy’s songs might become more relaxed, not reaching so emphatically to create a particular register. ‘Another Whisky Song’ is more charismatic, lower-toned, with gently creaking strings. It sounds like singing quietly to yourself, and has the intimacy of that; the slightly offbeat rhythm and tone of the strings creates friction against the voice.
‘Oh! My God! I Miss You’ is a steady, sad love ballad; nothing you wouldn’t expect, but sincerely sung. ‘Gifts’ is comparatively discomfiting: “trying to fit into you”, the singer becomes a wingless sparrow flung against an unwelcoming relationship. It’s not easy listening at all, but that feels right for the subject. Tension works well here.
‘Time Wanders On’ is much more laid back, the vocals fluid and cascading. ‘Lullaby for a Grieving Man’ feels accomplished: “a silver strand from me winds back to where my name is written upon your hand”, whistling echoing notes in the background. Some might find Bella Hardy’s voice a bit strained – I do at times, and would like to see her try pushing it from a deeper place, into a less fraught register – but at odd moments, something vibrates in her more high-strung songs. They’re meticulously crafted, mostly unrelaxed, emphatically wrought, but this tension could open up an honest quality better than unrelenting mild prettiness.