Fenne Lily started writing BREACH following a period of self-imposed isolation way before there was any sign of a pandemic that would come hand in hand with an epidemic of loneliness. But like Phoebe Bridgers’ latest album, the Bristol-based singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort and Dead Oceans debut engages with the idea of loneliness as something that perennially pervades our lives, a reminder that it’s less a consequence of a crisis than simply an ineluctable part of being human. You can hardly call a record like that timely, but it certainly reverberates in a more profound way during these times – and its quietly defiant nature makes it feel like all the more cathartic.
The extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a plethora of albums grappling with solitude remains to be seen, but BREACH stands out as one of the best records dealing with that subject to come out of 2020. More specifically, the album navigates the difference between being lonely and being alone, and in the process maps out the artist’s growth as she learns to be comfortable in her own presence. Part of that comes in the form of recognizing that emptiness as something shared: on the sprightly ‘Alapathy’, she sees “oblivion at capacity” and realizes that, “When it all breaks down, you’re a lot like me”; on the penultimate track, ‘Someone Else’s Trees’, she sings, “I’m not afraid to die, more so to be alive/ I know in this and more I’m not alone”. ‘Elliott’, a devastatingly gentle song that was originally inspired by someone who gave up a career in the music industry but ended up being about her dad’s childhood, finds the songwriter tracing those similarities down the family tree: “Elliott, remember to forget/ Everyone you ever wanted to be is dying the same death/ And you’ll learn/ And you’ll burn by different fire.”
Fenne Lily’s sound invites comparisons to the likes of fellow labelmate Phoebe Bridgers or Lucy Dacus, for whom she opened last year, but I find it has more in common with the intricate intimacy of Ada Lea’s excellent 2019 debut or the scruffier side of Feist’s Pleasure. While ‘Alapathy’ and the grungy ‘Solipsism’ stand out among the album’s highlights, the arrangements on the whole are delicate and plush, indicating a newfound sense of maturity and patience that might take repeated listens to truly sink in. BREACH might lack the abundance of immediate hooks or transcendent moments housed in those records, but Lily has clearly built something uniquely her own and worth continuing to mine for.
It wouldn’t work as well were it not for Lily’s wry sense of humour, which comes through most prominently in the songs dealing more directly with relationships. Rather than serving as vehicles for self-pity, songs like ‘I, Nietzsche’ and ‘I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Just Hate You’ frame the other person in a negative light by retrospectively pointing out their ridiculous behaviour: the first exposes how an intellectual obsession with nihilism underscored an inability to form meaningful connections (in a brilliant play on words, the hook sounds a lot like “And there’s nothing wrong with ‘I need you’”), while the latter is more of a sobering slow-burner in which she identifies her own faults without placing the blame on herself.
On that track and elsewhere on the album, Lily keeps returning to the idea of being on someone’s mind as something more sinister than is usually assumed: “You’re telling me I’m in your head like it’s a good thing,” she laments on ‘Birthday’. Having already established how deafening it can be to be stuck inside your head with your own thoughts, the sentiment makes complete sense. But BREACH offers a sense of peaceful resolve as Lily recognizes that she can live with those demons without allowing them to fully take over, just as she can reflect on past relationships without getting lost in a perpetual cycle of guilt and frustration. “It’s not hard to be alone anymore,” she repeats on ‘Berlin’, named after the city where Lily spent a month by herself after touring. Those fears haven’t ceased to exist – “Though I’m sleeping with my key in the door” is literally the line that comes after – so it’s not necessarily easy, either. But there is reassurance to be found in her warm voice and stark songwriting, the kind we could all use right now.