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Félicia Atkinson - The Flower and the Vessel Music Album Reviews

The methodical arrangements and uncomfortably close whispers of the experimental French musician, poet, and visual artist bring us further inside her surreal world.

On Félicia Atkinson’s 2017 solo album Hand to Hand, she said, “I wanted to make sounds like cacti, with water and secrets inside.” She succeeded: Pairing almost unnervingly intimate whispers with heavily abstracted synthetic tones, the album guarded a vivid interior life beneath its prickly exterior.

But as Atkinson began recording the music that would become The Flower and the Vessel, her perception of the relationship between inner and outer realms began to shift. She was pregnant at the time, and she found herself feeling estranged twice over, caught between her surroundings and the new life growing inside her. In hotel rooms at night, as she composed on her laptop and murmured voice memos into her phone, she asked, “What am I doing here? How can I connect myself to the world?”

The Flower and the Vessel is Atkinson’s answer to that question. It is, she says, “a record not about being pregnant but a record made with pregnancy.” The music carries within it the idea of form coming into being; it moves away from the freeform drift of her previous albums and glides toward a nascent kind of order.

Though the album uses sumptuous sounds like a Fender Rhodes, marimba, and vibraphone, its essence remains pensive and sometimes unsettling. Many of the record’s hushed, interwoven elements guard their identities. Contrasting rhythms form a lattice of complementary pulses: On the ominous centerpiece “You Have to Have Eyes,” a deep boat-engine throb mixes in with rapid-fire insect oscillations, creaking doors, and a voice looped like lapping waves. “You had to have eyes in the back of your head,” she murmurs, her voice turned strange and glassy by digital distortion.

As always, there are Atkinson’s uncomfortably close whispers—lips practically brushing the mic, the grain of her voice rendered in molecular detail. She slips between English and in French, and though the meaning of her words is not always apparent, the tone of her voice lends a dead-of-night intensity that renders the music’s pockets of silence all the more potent. It is as though you were locked in urgent conversation with her, or even eavesdropping on her very thoughts. But the invasive nature of the tactic—“Whispering is a way to get inside your ear,” she has said—puts an ominous, alienating spin on what we normally think of as an intimate sound.

With many of her texts repurposed from found sources, the precise meaning of most of these songs remains hidden. In “Shirley to Shirley,” she reads excerpts from a conversation between the artists Shirley Kaneda and Shirley Jaffe in Bomb Magazine in an electronically processed voice. In “Un Ovale Vert,” she reads a portion of one of David Antin’s improvised “talk poems” and then, in French, intones images from her own visual art (“a white ball, a green oval”). She is fascinated by the way ideas pass from medium to medium; the methodical way she arranges her sounds is almost painterly. (She also cites ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, as an influence on the album’s careful sense of balance and proportion.)

The album closes with “Des Pierres,” an 18-minute collaboration with Stephen O’Malley, of Sunn O))), which threads Atkinson’s whispers through nebulous clouds of milky drones and guitar feedback. She calls it an “open reading” of a history of images in stone—that is, the accidental “landscapes” found in gems and geodes—written by the French literary critic Roger Caillois. It’s a characteristically erudite reference, but its presence can be traced throughout the music: the guitars roiling like cloudy agate or glistening like an expanse of obsidian. Again, Atkinson returns to the idea of inside (the crystalline image revealed in a cross-section) versus outside (the rock’s nubby exterior). In the album’s opening track, she whispers a poem to her unborn child, meditating on the way that her voice travels through her body to her baby’s ears, and here, at the album’s end, she plunges us deep into that amniotic world.

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