Music review: Musical tribute to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar stares death in the eye

The Durham Book Festival commissioned Kathryn Williams in 2013 to write songs in celebration of The Bell Jar's 50th anniversary.
The Durham Book Festival commissioned Kathryn Williams in 2013 to write songs in celebration of The Bell Jar's 50th anniversary.PHOTO: CAW/ONE LITTLE INDIAN

Kathryn Williams' album Hypoxia is an honest response to scenes and characters in poet Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar

American poet Sylvia Plath ended her life by shoving her head into the gas oven, one month after the publication of her only novel, The Bell Jar, in 1963. Yet, her legacy lives on.

Her spell captivates generation after generation of artists, including acclaimed Liverpool-born singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams. Williams first encountered the novel, a semi-autobiographical narrative about an Esther Greenwood who could not fit into the societal concept of womanhood and descends into depression - as a teenager.

It was only in 2013, when she was commissioned by the Durham Book Festival to write songs in celebration of the book's 50th anniversary that she realised the novel's strong hold on her imagination: It was "this strange little cuckoo that had pushed my other records out of the way" and "demanding to be fed".

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"What I wasn't prepared for was the muscular writing," she added in an interview. "The shocking, brutal honesty. The modernness."

She finished an entire album's worth of songs responding to scenes and characters in the novel - thus, this ekphrastic work you have here.

Hypoxia - a medical term referring to the deprivation of oxygen in the body, and an allusion to Plath's own death - may be brief at barely 30 minutes, but what gut-wrenching stuff it is.

Williams has a warm, softly caressing whisper, but it's deceptive. It's empathetic, but it is also unsentimental. It feels the emotional scars and stares death in the eye.

Album opener Electric opens with gentle strums and the singer purring, "The news is following me." The news, as it turns out, is the execution of American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair in 1953. "Electric," her voice rings out, clear and unmistakable. It raises goosebumps.

Tango With Marco is a date gone wrong, resulting in a rape attempt. The guitar is plucked and strummed insistently and you hear the rhythm of wood against wood, a knocking loop which gives you the creeps.

"If I shout out in pain/You call it a good f***," Williams sings without histrionics or bathos, far from the drama-mama antics of Florence Welch.

The songs feel intimate but never indulgent. "I feel the needle," she utters in the spectral When Nothing Meant Less, as synths swell. "The ways I tried to stop my heart… every time the body pulled apart," whispers the singer in another unnerving testament. Mirrors sways with a bluesy swing, pivoted on the motif of reflecting images, culminating in the alienating scene of Esther not recognising herself in the mirror.

The sucker punch is delivered in Cuckoo, a song from the perspective of Esther's mother and co-written with album producer and musician Ed Harcourt.

"Oh my little girl's gone mad… why couldn't she go quietly?" is the eviscerating line, as a decorous piano melody line hangs in the air.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Staring death in the eye'. Print Edition | Subscribe