In his book, Invisible Cities (1972), Italo Calvino paints a vision of the ‘spider-web city’ of Octavia, built upon the void between two mountains; the city is held in ‘a net which serves as passage and as support’.
Hannah Peel’s latest album, Awake But Always Dreaming, evokes this sense of a metropolis suspended precariously above a deep chasm, a metaphor for the record’s central theme of dementia (specifically, Peel’s grandmother’s).
In her songs and lyrics, the palaces and passages of memory and human connection which we cling to are easily dissolved into dreams and amnesia, and there is a certain fragility to the beauty she renders in the desperate search for these places of happiness.
As with Peel’s other musical project, The Magnetic North (a band formed with Simon Tong and Erland Cooper), the soundscapes of Awake But Always Dreaming are dreamy, expansive, symphonic; silvery percussion combines with insistent, slow-building melodies and experimental electronica to produce an almost cinematic experience of sprawling noises, sweetened with Peel’s dulcet voice.
Opening track ‘All that Matters’ is a paean to human connection (“who will hold your worried face? / all that matters is your embrace”), driven by shimmering synths and a pulsing drumbeat, brightly interwoven with a cross rhythmic string section and scattered piano notes.
While this catchy electro-pop opener might be filed alongside the likes of Ellie Goulding or Little Boots, Awake But Always Dreaming is a record of such thematic subtlety that ‘All that Matters’ transforms from potential dance hit to something more complex: a spearhead of optimism, a celebration of the now, lifting an album whose tone tends more towards melancholy and reflection.
The first few songs have a hopeful, upbeat tone, but the record’s trajectory shifts with ‘Tenderly’, a brooding piano ballad adorned with the sheen of lush strings and glitchy, looping percussion.
I first listened to Awake But Always Dreaming while walking along the Clyde at night amidst the howling November rain, and in a way this is the perfect setting for experiencing Peel’s music: the urban environment – with its mesh of memories, its promising network of human connections, flickering and disappearing between light and shadow – provides the emotional and physical landscape for the lonesome wanderings of Peel’s songs.
As the album progresses, Peel reminds us that moments of joy are always precarious; increasingly, her tracks explore the theme of dementia in a playful though melancholy tone, often reminiscent of the tripping, celestial sparkles of Björk’s Vespertine.
The gossamer threads of memory that hold our selves and our world together begin to snap and unravel, a motion reflected in the interplay between the legato melody and flourishes of piano arpeggio on ‘Invisible City’ – a track which directly references Calvino’s novel and paints a vision of the city as a safety net of memory and belonging in the absence of a loved one: “I built this city / around my body / these walls they hold me / like you once did”.
While the city is rendered tenderly in ‘Invisible City’, the orchestral rollercoaster of ‘Octavia’ dramatises the potential for violence and fear within cities, beginning with eerie staccato woodwind and building up to a soaring sense of falling through space, complete with thrusting industrial noises.
‘Octavia’ could easily provide the soundtrack for a remake of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction film, Metropolis, where the powerful, eerie drive of Peel’s instrumental composition strikes a chord against the modernist dystopia of Lang’s dramatic architectural sprawl.
The impulse towards spatial and sensory exploration which propels the album becomes a kind of free fall in ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’.
The title itself implies a surreal state of constant hypnagogia, where dreams and memories overlay the environment as a palimpsest; in the song, a disorientating static of mixed-up voices intermingles with throbbing sub bass to create an atmosphere of confusion, where dreams, memories and reality are fluidly interchanged.
Moreover, the deliberate feel of delay, prolonging and deferral in Peel’s vocal delivery captures a sense of trance-like slow motion perception, as she asks, “Will you catch me if I fall / through the city lights?”; it’s easy to experience the proximity to dissolution that haunts the album, both lyrically and musically.
The maddening array of mixed-up voices continues into the start of ‘Conversations’, giving way to soft ripples of piano and the ice-clear perfection of Peel’s voice, which seems cold and lonely even as it reaches soaring notes, the word memory repeated, varied and sustained, as if a particular enunciation might conjure her grandmother’s city of memories back from the abyss.
At times, Peel’s vocals seem almost disembodied, suspended above the rich tapestry of sound which unfolds below; while her songs are deeply emotional, she often retains a cool, focused detachment which adds extra poignancy to the sense of things dissolving, floating and crumbling away, “like snow in an avalanche” – a process of space, time and material decay that is completely beyond our human control.
Peel’s concern with the strangeness and beauty of space and human relations crystallises in the album’s closer, a cover of Paul Buchanan’s ‘Cars in the Garden’ alongside Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe.
Here, Peel’s signature music box provides serene nursery rhyme twinkles interwoven with Thorpe’s dark velvety tones which perfectly complement the icy sweetness of Peel’s voice.
The rhyming in this song – for example, of “cars” and “stars” – creates an almost uncanny, chiasmic impulse, chiming with the sense of desiring transcendence from the material world while deeply craving its familiarity, the encrusted solidity of memories.
As the album fades out through an ambient, horn-like sound, Peel kindles a vision of her city as both distant and dissolved; and yet lingering, beautifully, in the imprint of her songs, spun across a record as elaborate and lovely as a web of silk, a comb of honey.
Words: Maria Sledmere