The word Hiraeth is Welsh in origin and has no direct English translation. Loosely though, it refers to the idea of homesickness for a place to which you cannot return. In terms of mantel’s for an album, it’s an abstract one to be sure. In terms of its musical approach, it finds Alex Smalley creating an album that is both fantastical and painfully human.
When listening to Hiraeth, the word otherworldly comes to mind. There’s a sort of floating quality to the music that sees it drifting in and out of focus. Opening piece “Neutrino” is built around soaring strings and voice. It’s an interesting take on the notion of homesickness to build melodies that seem to suggest some other plain, almost absent from the view of the everyday world. It’s gentle, re-assuring, and feels safe – but it also feels unknowable.
And that seems to be a driving tension for the album in terms of its ideas and through its composition: that idea of longing for something that perhaps never was. The second piece is called “Echo of tomorrow” – again, a notion that addresses the residual effects of something that has not in fact happened (not yet). The song starts to big and gets small reduced to a fragile, spare melody that seems soaked in longing.
“Cultivator” is the third composition and feels like a central motif in the album’s journey. As human voice enters, one recalls the use of Strauss’s work used in “Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey”. And like Strauss’s music (and Kubrick’s visuals, really) one feels as though travelling, perhaps even slightly uncomfortably, to some other sphere. The use of wordless soprano voice is interesting on the album. It effectively hints at a very human time, pre-language, that seems somehow more earnest and heartfelt. Bear in mind that, as with everything the album strives toward, there is no implication that such a time or place truly existed. That’s not the point. The point is that there is a sense of loss for such a place whether “real” or not. And that point/counterpoint between the human and the fantastical is also at play – one set against the other.
“Nature for Equal Rights” is the second extended centrepiece within the album. Like it’s predecessor, it seems more deliberately linear and seems to build a narrative. There’s a piano melody in there that is among the most gorgeous things Smalley has written. It’s foreboding on one hand but somehow defiantly human as well. And even when it slows, the piece just gets bigger and bigger. In a narrative sense, this is when the longing truly sets in – when that feeling of something lost really takes hold. Is this a return to the everyday, a place without imagination for a different way? Decay plays a big part of the piece as it seems to be torn into fragments, turning into echoes of its former self at points. But it’s not all lost – the beauty of the piece still shines through, even if only in fragments.
“Soft Furnishings” is the album closer and it feels like an ending proper. It drifts away slowly like leaving some orbit or watching the ground disappear beneath you while on a plane. It serves as a strange companion piece to the opener in that one is about absorbing the listener, while this ending is about sending the listener off. Appropriately too, the piece slowly fades out rather than coming to a grinding halt.
Hiraeth is in many ways an extension of Smalley’s previous album, Home. And there is a direct connection between the notion of home and homesickness. However, Hiraeth embraces the more ethereal tendencies of its predecessor and seems more at ease with those fleeting moments of beauty. And when they are fleeting, the vapour trail that they leave seems to retain some of its delicate beauty rather than feeling as though defined by absence. Hiraeth is a hard album to pin down, at times I though of Sufjan Stevens and Kate Bush as odd points of reference. It’s an endearing album from beginning to end and a rewarding musical journey to be sure. Smalley continues to create works that demand our attention.