What is the story of Katie Malco? Scottish-born, Northampton-raised, music industry career in London. And being back in Northampton now where she once graced the stage as a guitar-slinger in bands has surely inspired some of her moves away from the piano ballads of her early solo years into this broken-hearted alt-rock queen we see before us. One who has picked up the broken dreams that kept her awake at night and poured all her sentiments into a personal, coming-of-age record that dwells on both the twin themes of longing and belonging.
With drumming and production aid from Andy Jenkin, plus bass/backing vocals by Stephen Davidson, this north London-recorded long-player has two contrasting song types: alt-rock wallopers that draw heavily on the classic late ’80s/early ’90s US touchstones [she has, not surprisingly, supported Bob Mould], and [more often that not] minimally-arranged fireside confessionals. Opener ‘Animal’ is in the former camp, highlighting precisely how drunken escapism from bad domestic situations can lead you into a period of instability. The chorus melody here is really something untouchable, and probably worth buying the album for on it’s own.
‘Brooklyn’ immediately follows, and the gear change is unmistakable. A bitterweet tale of losing your best mate to another country, chronicling the things they did together when Malco goes to visit. “I talked you out of staying/But I don’t know when you’ll come back” is arrestingly sung with absolutely no suppression of sorrow. ‘Fractures’, meanwhile, is an Americana-flavoured lament about trying to be someone you’re not, and all for love. Again, heartbreaking lines a country singer would be proud of – “So I’ll be this for you if you want me to/And I’ll love you endlessly/If you can pretend to love me”. He’s currently in the doghouse, but the Ryan Adams comparison doesn’t feel out of place in terms of mood and arrangement.
At times Failures can be slightly overwhelming, such is the stark emotion and downright existential dread on display. An adjective like ‘melancholy’ doesn’t even begin to sum up the tenor of many of these tracks. ‘September’ – one of a number songs on the album to reference sleeping, waking, or generally being tired – is a re-recording from her 2013 ‘Tearing Ventricles’ EP. It details the end of a relationship, and it’s drowsy guitar tones creates a seductively gloomy whole. ‘TW’ seems to see Malco return to her native Scotland for a funeral, and via a Fleet Foxes folk-rock style she ruminates on life, death, and celebrating the small moments that make us more than government statistics.
Side two begins with ‘Night Avenger’, a spindly, bare-bones paean to late night farewells to lovers. When the harmonium kicks in in the second half it sounds [rather magically] much like a lengthy, pained sigh. ‘Creatures’ was the first single from the album, and it’s another of those grungey rockers, and is probably her most infectious song to date. Its pretty melody is no masks; lyrics such as “I see creatures/They’re my failures/Watch them crawl/Across every wall” are amongst the saddest you’ll ever hear sung by anyone, anywhere.
‘Let’s Go to War’ is a six minute epic; Jeff Buckley ethereal vibes for the opening section, before the song continues to unfurl with regular drum whips and angry guitar slams. Mental degradation is at a peak here – “it’s hard to feel/Like I’m not on a spinning wheel/Round in circles tumbling” – yet the feeling of the music is nonetheless uplifting, even spiritual. The album falters somewhat on the final two tracks; ‘Peckham’ is a simple piano-led ballad that harks back to her old south London domain, whilst ‘The First Snow’ is a little straight-laced considering what fervour has been previously heft in our direction.
That she almost quit music a few years ago as her confidence dipped is even more remarkable considering what she has achieved here. The title of the record is Failures for a reason. Looking back often means engaging with the most painful side of our history, and this record fully embraces all those moments and more. But looking forward to here and now, this is a beautifully sad record that will draw you in. Failure is not a likely option for Katie Malco. Her army of fans will surely grow and grow.