Hilary Woods – Birthmarks

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Give an artist the opportunity to step away from making music for a decade, and there’s a strong chance that they’ll return with an entirely different vision or aesthetic. When Irish singer/songwriter Hilary Woods left the behind the anthemic post-Britpop sound of her old band JJ72, she chose instead to pursue art school, and became a mother in the process. And for 11 years, that was pretty much it. Two driving rock albums, a few world tours and major festivals, and that was enough for Woods to retreat from having to “feel the cogs of the industry” she was in. When she did finally release her first new music in over 10 years with 2014’s Night and then eventually her solo debut album Colt, Woods emerged anew, an artist redefined by a dark and haunting aesthetic, and a nuanced maturity that only comes with discovering what kind of artist she really was.

She’s only grown more interesting as a songwriter and sound architect since then. Woods’ second album for Sacred Bones, Birthmarks, finds her pulling the sparse yet beautiful folk music of her debut into an even harsher and more perilous place, as if using mystical power of song to invoke hidden spirits. The opening sounds of “Tongues of Wild Boar” are crackling white noise, like that of burning wood or even a record’s runout groove, only to erupt into a malevolent mass of noise and static provided by Woods’ collaborator Lasse Marhaug, a Norwegian noise artist. Gentle acoustic instruments meld gorgeously with the dark ambient mass at the center of the song, as Woods embarks on a soul journey after a love flickers out: “Pickle preserve the remains of a once all-consuming fire.”

The ominous terrain that Woods travels on Birthmarks is primarily an internal one. She was pregnant during the writing of the album, and she relays that experience in a terrifying manner on “Orange Tree,” singing, “I am afraid/It’s growing inside of me.” But that could just as easily be interpreted as a feeling or a yearning instead of a human life, and throughout the album she depicts emotions with chilling imagery. On “Through the Dark, Love,” she sings of the wreath beneath her heart, “its head is shorn, its fruit is gone,” and on “There Is No Moon,” she sings “I buried alive these feelings.” It’s not mere suppression or restraint; it’s murder.

Which seems fitting given how utterly terrifying so much of the sounds on Birthmarks are. In working with Marhaug, Woods has fleshed out her ghostly, gothic folk into something bigger and heavier, informed as much by noise and industrial music as darkwave or neofolk. These songs are often heavier on instrumental soundscapes than lyrical content; the noir wave drone of “Mud and Stones” incorporates saxophone into its menacing thrum, while strings crash up against explosive, distorted thuds in “The Mouth,” and “Cleansing Ritual” harnesses apocalyptic chaos into the album’s most cacophonous moment. At times these feel less like songs, more like visceral, primal experiences.

Hilary Woods has discussed how creating this album was in large part an exercise in self-discovery and a kind of spiritual, artistic rebirth. And, judging by the kinds of treacherous sonic territory she’s laid out and the sometimes harrowing moments throughout Birthmarks, that exercise likely wasn’t an easy or comfortable one. Soul searching rarely is. Her evolution into this version of her creative self—one who’s fearless, clear in her focus and more than willing to shed some blood—has made the long and mostly quiet period of self-discovery all the more worthwhile.

Label: Sacred Bones
Year: 2020

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