Keaton Henson writes music that makes you feel guilty for listening to it. It feels almost too personal, like you read a page from his diary left open on the countertop. And you feel even worse if you know how shy he is in real life, steering clear of social media, rarely agreeing to interviews, and appearing viscerally anxious when performing in front of crowds. Yet his music is startlingly candid. Completely open in his explorations of mental illness, self-doubt, and loss, Keaton Henson has a capacity for complete humility that few songwriters can achieve. And his latest album, Monument, may be his most gut-wrenching work yet.
Grief-stricken and tender, Monument tackles the decade-long illness and death of his father. The album’s centrepiece, “Prayer,” serves as a eulogy in two movements. “The first half is a meditation on preparing for loss,”Keaton notes, “and the realisation that there is nothing we can say, even when we know someone is leaving, to make it hurt any less when they do, there is no magic conversation that makes their absence from the world ok, even if it feels like there should be.” Opening in a minor key, his voice trembles and breaks over the piano:
Hallelujah, I’m saving you up
All for the day you leave
I held you in while you shed your skin
And I read myself to sleep
Oh, I know it’s ending but
I’m on the mend, oh
unbalanced triumphant and trying again
After a heartbreaking whispered refrain (“Speak up, I’m losing you”), the song evolves into a sweeping orchestral movement featuring a full string arrangement by London’s 12 Ensemble and snippets of grainy home footage from Keaton’s infancy. “Prayer” may be the closest I’ve seen a song get to capturing the complexities of grief – the anticipation, the shock when it finally strikes, the bittersweet nostalgia, and the acute, indescribable pain. The song concludes with a clip of Keaton’s father cooing to him as a baby: “Keaton! Wave to daddy!” And if you aren’t already crying by this point, you will be now.
As heartbreaking as Monument is, there are brief moments of levity. In the electronic slow-burner “Ontario,” we get a glimpse into Keaton’s healing process, holed up in the icy Canadian province: “I love the arrogant cold / I’m off balance but I feel my soul.” And in “Like I Can,” there are even moments of euphoria. Joy bursts from every trumpet blast as Keaton belts out with uncharacteristic jubilee, “I want to love you while I can!” In a celebration of love and life in all its fleeting glory, “Like I Can” offers a silver lining to the grief: a fresh perspective, and a profound gratitude for the love we’re able to give while we’re still here.
“It is not, I hope, a dark mud-mire of a record about grief and loss, but one about how grief and loss colour the rest of our lives, it is all the ups and downs of my past few years seen through a prism of losing people,” Keaton notes. “For me the profound thing about dealing with someone’s death, is how much brighter it makes life seem in comparison. As though you have been staring at something so dark, and in such stark monochrome, that when you do look away everything else is suddenly in vivid colour, and the hopes and joys of light are more apparent than ever. So it’s certainly not that this album doesn’t have its share of the dark stuff, but it has the light, the hope, as well.”
You can stream Keaton Henson’s Monument on all streaming platforms today. But bring a box of tissues.