Clare Bowditch and the Feeding Set – What Was Left

What is it about hearing a great new artist for the first time and being blown away, only to hear subsequent releases, equally as well written and produced, but that initial blast of joy is missing?

Inevitable pitfall of the human condition? A result of modern day low attention-span syndrome? Something akin perhaps to feeling that we always need more, and we need something different.

I suppose it’s true enough, not least of all in the music industry, that we’re always on the lookout for the next big thing. An opportunity to be excited by something, in the way we once were when hearing Joni Mitchell or Led Zeppelin or the Pixies for the first time.

Well ladies and gentlemen; let me tell you, this addiction is a consumerism-fuelled illusion, in my opinion a weakness that forces our attention away from the wonderful things we have right in front of us.

And just in the nick of time, Clare Bowditch is here and back with her second album to cure us of such ills. I’m one of those people that were hopelessly seduced by Bowditch’s first album, Autumn Bone. It’s darkness, it’s mystery, it’s impossibly buoyant pop songs and it’s willingness to be something different – accessible but absolutely outside of mainstream parameters – really set this album apart as one of my favourites of 2004.

Her new album, What Was Left, I’ve got to say was somewhat underwhelming at first. Perhaps the way it has been tracked – there’s a handful of rather downbeat introspective songs at the front end of the album which made it difficult to get enthused right away. But like much great music, the reward is there in mood and aesthetic and within days, I was gladly surrendering to the album’s defining characteristics.

What Was Left
is at heart, a dreamy pillow of a record. Bowditch and her band The Feeding Set – partner Marty Browne on drums, piano and production duties, Libby Chow on French Horn and Warren Bloomer on bass – offer 13 mostly gentle songs of love, reflection, grief, indecision and the joy in life’s simpler moments. For the patient and attentive listener, there is much here from which to navigate several lifetimes’ worth of conundrums, problems and crossroads.

The first wonderful moment comes with I Thought You Were God. Here, Bowditch tells a story about being young, impressionable, naíƒÂ¯ve and in love, perhaps for the first time. She sings:

I was very young and terribly in love, not yet knowing that love alone may not be enough to counter all the stupid things I thought. I thought you were God. And I believed in you.

But the pay off comes as the song winds up from understanding and perspective – showing us this is no pointless, bitter lament.

We still talk quite a lot since the alarming discovery that you were never God,
and we still laugh, but the laughter’s more sincere,
‘cause it’s speckled with your tears.

Ahhh, yes we’ve all been there haven’t we? But the way Clare Bowditch sings it, reminds us we wouldn’t trade in an experience like first love for a second.

One of the album’s pre-release singles Divorcee By 23 is a lilting mid-tempo journey housing a trademark Bowditch winding verse melody and straight ahead chorus which charters a dodgy relationship that’s produced a baby girl. It’s an effective song which serves as a warning that partnerships like this are worth saving for all sorts of reasons.

But we’re only warming up. The album’s centre punch is The Thing About Grief. A song which shares the intimate tale of Bowditch coming to terms with the grief and realities of her sister passing away when they were both children. The song conveys the story with lines like:

The thing about grief is it knows what I did and it knows what I did not say,
Then later:
It’s hard to give away because it’s the last thing you gave to me.

Could these words be any more devastating or poignant?

Before you realise it, What Was Left emerges as a stayer with potential to deliver a series of deeply emotional revelations. It’s almost (read almost) too much to bear when the sister song of grief called When I Was Five tells us:

They say you crossed a river to touch God’s hand but I did not understand where he lived. So I tried to write him letters – letters of demand, saying ‘She’s my sister’.

This is ageless and honest storytelling set to music – real, revelatory and no doubt as reassuring to Clare as it would be to others who’ve been through something similar.

At the album’s end, single On This Side lifts us up with a return to some of the bright and breezy pop from Autumn Bone. The song has an abundance of real-world charm about it, celebrating feeling good and perhaps saying that the key to happiness is just believing in yourself. We could all certainly do worse than that.

Ultimately What Was Left sees Clare Bowditch developing as an artist, putting pen to paper with some moving, personal vignettes and casting them in music and melodies alternately pretty, intricate and aching. A welcome and warming next step in a talented and spirited artist’s career.