Few singer-songwriters could be described as progressive. With the classic one-person-and-their-instrument format being so firmly rooted in folk traditions, it’s no fault of the singer-songwriter set-up that this is the case, and that’s not to say that there doesn’t exist significant scope for singularity or evolution within this specific style of songwriting, but by and large, there is a great deal of conformity to certain, long-established conventions and concepts by singer-songwriters. In fact, with those who defy these tropes often being hastily pigeonholed into the ‘anti-folk’ label, artists who actively work within a folk paradigm whilst pushing into more avant-garde territory can feel like even more of a rarity. Upon the release of his debut album, Bowler Hat Soup, back in 2013, singer-songwriter Kiran Leonard proved himself capable of pushing indie pop to its limits, making use of an impressive arsenal of instruments, including a radiator, nearly all of which the musician played himself, whilst lacing complex compositional blueprints with heady, abstract musings and polished technical dexterity. Indeed, given the ambitious and audacious breadth of Bowler Hat Soup, it should come as no surprise that the musician cited such innovators as The Mothers of Invention, Deerhoof, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Residents and Krzysztof Penderecki as artistic inspirations for the album. The follow-up to Leonard’s first full-length effort came in the form of Grapefruit from last year, wherein the artist substituted the bevy of brief, one- or two-minute long vignette-style songs of Bowler Hat Soup for much longer, grander and borderline cinematic compositions, with the record’s cynosure being the 16-minute epic, Pink Fruit. On his latest effort, Derevaun Seraun, Leonard opts for these same, uber-progressive pieces, whilst presenting them in a notably more refined and subtle format, with the instrumental expanse of his past endeavours being exchanged for a much simpler, singer-songwriter set-up, with the five movements of Derevaun Seraun being composed just for vocals, piano and strings. This drastic tone shift is even reflected in the album artwork for the project, with the hectic, kaleidoscopic explosions brandished on the covers of Bowler Hat Soup and Grapefruit looking all the more manic and vibrant when compared to the monochrome pencil sketch of Derevaun Seraun. Despite the album’s artwork and timbre both stripping back the luxuries of the musician’s past output, Derevaun Seraun is nevertheless no less dynamic when it comes to the compositional expanse of Leonard’s writing, with the musician’s progressive piano ballads manoeuvring smoothly amidst winding twists and turns in his songwriting, whilst each of the piece’s five movements see the singer wax lyrical about five works of literature that defined him as an artist. All in all, although deficient in the decadence of the musician’s first two full-length undertakings, Derevaun Seraun stands as perhaps Leonard’s most accomplished oeuvre to date from a songwriting standpoint alone, which makes his bold decision to work within such an understated format all the more striking.
With none of the five tracks from Derevaun Seraun running seamlessly into one another, the fact that Leonard refers to the album as “a piece […] in five movements” may seem somewhat questionable at first and, most definitely, listening to the project on a casual basis, in an age wherein listening to records on shuffle is just as common as listening to them in their intended running order, may give off the impression that these five cuts are entirely separate from one another, bar their similarities in instrumentation and presentation. However, embracing Derevaun Seraun in all its glory, allowing oneself to take in each bone-chilling swell of the strings and every crack in the singer’s impassioned cries, reveals that the record was unequivocally pieced together with its structure and pacing never too far from the musician’s mind, with each movement coming as the logical successor to the last, as to make for a a highly fulfilling, 32-minute piece. Case in point, even on a casual listen, there should be no difficulty in identifying why Could She Still Draw Back? makes for such an arresting and well-worked introduction to Derevaun Seraun. Initially, the fragmented piano chords are loosely bound together by Leonard’s wistful singing, which is made all the more expressive by the way in which the artist’s long, legato notes are occasionally abruptly cut off by the sudden stab of the next piano chord, before the quivering string section emerges from the ghostly silence left between the piano’s patchy tinkering, swelling as to meet the yearning heights of Leonard’s vocal performance. There is such an intimate atmosphere to the way in which the strings surround Leonard’s musings on James Joyce’s short story Eveline, emphasising the emotion of his performance as if a spotlight focussed solely on a singer at a piano on an otherwise empty stage, that it’s easy to imagine each hit of the hammers against the piano strings as a kiss and every flutter of the waxing string section as a shiver caused by the cold ocean breeze. As the young Eveline, previously awaiting the arrival of a ship to whisk her and her beloved sailor away to the undetermined joys of their new life together abroad, makes the agonising decision not to depart with her lover, the strings become more frantic and the rises and falls in Leonard’s voice become more dramatic, reflecting the emotional turbulence of the woman’s conflicted feelings of devotion towards both the ailing father whom she will be leaving behind and the inamorato by whom she has been presented the chance to start anew. Even taking Could She Still Draw Back? out of its literary context, the fact that the structure of this first movement is far more fractured and more heavily focussed on instrumental swells and emotional build-up than any other track from Derevaun Seraun clearly points to it being perfectly suited for the opening spot of the album, with it leading naturally into the more rigid and fleshed-out compositions that succeed it.
Although the second movement, Living With Your Ailments, is far from the longest track on Derevaun Seraun, it nevertheless feels like the record’s centrepiece, which may explain why it was the lead single released in promotion of the album, with its progressive, tortuous structure and strong melodic tones acting as a fitting mission statement for the compositional approach employed by Leonard across the rest of the record. With the movement’s main piano melody maintaining an upbeat bounce to it that really emphasises the waltzing time signature, this section assumes a smooth and fluid motion that is undoubtedly evocative of the elegance of ballroom dancing, especially as the initial, droning string section begins to punctuate the beginning of each bar with a pithy stab that seems to signal each major stride or sway in the routine. Leonard, however, breaks up the refinement of the instrumental with a performance that is unhindered in its expressiveness, with the almost theatrical fluctuation in the tone of his voice and the slight cracks in his delivery as it reaches its most potent heights being reminiscent of Regina Spektor on a song such as Us, which may have even served as an inspiration for Leonard, given the identical set-up of voice, piano and string section. With much of the movement teetering between passages of lone piano chords that leave the listener hanging in the space left between each strike, and sudden upsurges of dramatic tension, as the string stabs assume a constant crotchet rhythm and the listener can almost feel Leonard’s fingers hammering down on the piano keys, Living With Your Ailments may not be the longest cut in the tracklisting, but it’s certainly a contender for the most strikingly eloquent in its ability to relay such a diverse pool of emotions in only seven-and-a-half minutes. A Particle of Flesh Refuses the Consummation of Death is similarly captivating in this regard, however. It may seem like an odd or even overblown comparison, but as the full force of the movement’s introduction first hit me, I was strangely reminded of the furious opening to the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, and, in fact, as A Particle of Flesh Refuses the Consummation of Death continues, its resemblance to the legendary Kreutzer Sonata became even more apparent. This primarily pertains to the emotional expanse of the piece, which, like Beethoven’s Opus 47, moves fluidly from rage to reflection to exuberance, with the initial accents of commanding minor chords giving way to some loose, rising and falling noodling at the piano and Leonard’s wispy, ethereal vocal melodies, which eventually find resolve in the buoyant major chords towards the middle and end of the movement. Although comparing A Particle of Flesh Refuses the Consummation of Death to an iconic classical piece may seem turgid, the similarities between the two compositions, even if only slight, highlight the impressive emotional scope of Leonard’s songwriting on Derevaun Seraun. Indeed, with The Mute Wide-Open Eye of All Things being turbocharged with tense bustles of agitated strings and hectic piano notes under a spoken word performance from Leonard, whilst the 10-minute epic of The Cure for Pneumothorax weaves smoothly and seamlessly amidst an abundance of poignant, rich and dramatic melodies, the greatest strength of Derevaun Seraun is simply how expansive it is in its expressiveness.
On Derevaun Seraun, Kiran Leonard has succeeded in stripping back the luxuries of his stylings, whilst yielding what may be his most stirring, striking and sweeping release thus far, with the album’s limited timbre being used to such great effect that forgetting that this piece is performed with only vocals, piano and strings is inevitable at some point or another. It could perhaps be said that such a simple configuration leaves the record feeling slightly one-dimensional, but at only just over half an hour in length, this is hardly an issue for Derevaun Seraun, not to mention the fact that Leonard’s songwriting style is anything but one-dimensional. Indeed, although the artist may be working within a seemingly ordinary singer-songwriter format, Leonard’s progressive compositional prowess goes above and beyond what one would expect from an average singer-songwriter, with the poised pacing of Derevaun Seraun elevating the record’s already soaring emotional highs and making for a generally gratifying listening experience.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10