Album Review: Marika Hackman, ‘Big Sigh’

    Marika Hackman’s music is steeped in feeling, but you can’t always situate or trace it back to a specific time and place. It could be fresh and just now bubbling up or long buried and finally creeping through the surface; on Big Sigh, the London singer–songwriter’s first studio album in almost five years, you can’t always tell the difference. “There’s a part of me that really mourns the loss of the simplicity of childhood,” Hackman said in an interview about the record, which feels elegiac but not in the way that was emblematic of her early work, particularly 2015’s We Slept at Last. A different kind of maturity has settled in. She untangles patterns that carry onto adulthood, relationships that belong in the past but whose complex dynamics linger into the present, and accepts the innocence that’s lost while yearning for something more. The result might be the most emotionally heavy, thoughtful, and layered effort of her career, but it never drags you down.

    “I’m so relieved it hurts,” Hackman sings on ‘Hanging’, which is in reference to a breakup but gets to the heart of Big Sigh’s duality – both the title and the album as a whole. Her last album, Any Human Friend, was full of dichotomies, too – by turns wistful and horny, hooky and discordant, the product of newfound confidence and chaotic desire. But the difference between Any Human Friend and Big Sigh isn’t so much mood as simply time, space, and solitude; it takes its time to unwind, giving each element room to breathe and intermingle. Hackman doesn’t sound concerned with making it fun so much as digging through the muck to get to something real, what she describes as “the golden thing” in the center. “Gold is on the ground/ I was happy for a while,” she repeats on the opening track, whose slow–moving arrangement and swirling piano knowingly recall Radiohead’s ‘Daydreaming’ (Thom Yorke collaborator Sam Petts-Davies co–produced the album). It’s not that Hackman has lost faith, but she knows better than to keep chasing the false promise of happiness, even if she still quietly longs for it; first, she has to let it go.

    Other things she can still salvage: on ‘Hanging’, she describes her heart as a “hard brown stone/like an embryo,” before sighing, “It will never be a part of me worth finding.” The important clause here is “With your fingers down my throat,” because alone with a piano, it sounds like the only thing that could ever be worthwhile. Still, it’s hard: the silence she tries to embrace on the title track becomes a storm of violence, the lift of the chorus somehow feels like sinking, until she resolves that she is, that big sigh of a word, fine. Songs like ‘Slime’ harness the dark sexual energy of Any Human Friend, but Hackman sounds tired of any form of cheekiness, so she mostly does away with it. Two of the most striking songs on the album, ‘Blood’ and ‘Please Don’t Be So Kind’, are subtler and embody conversations of visceral intimacy. On the latter, Hackman verbalizes her desire with honest, gritty precision – to be loved in a way that rips her heart out – even though the other person seems far from being on the same wavelength.

    Yet Hackman is more than capable of grounding herself. She knows she can’t change the past or other people’s behaviour, but she can keep herself in check: on an earlier song, the line “Stay away from love/ Maybe take your clothes off” could have been suggestive, but on ‘No Caffeine’ it’s part of a greater strategy to control a racing mind, which also entails talking to all your friends and making herbal tea. On the instrumental ‘The Lonely House’, she allows herself to be guided by a beautifully stark melody without turning it into a song. Lonely doesn’t so bad when you’re surrounded by people who lie, whether to be mean (“Mum says I’m a waste of skin/ A sack of shit and oxygen”) or kind (“But dad thinks I could be something/ If I eat my vitamins”). But Hackman remains steadfast in her pursuit of the bloody, simple truths, which have a way of shining through and beyond one’s own self. “But if we’re all special then we’re all the same,” she sings on ‘Vitamins’, a painful realization that suddenly sounds like the biggest relief.

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    Marika Hackman’s music is steeped in feeling, but you can’t always situate or trace it back to a specific time and place. It could be fresh and just now bubbling up or long buried and finally creeping through the surface; on Big Sigh, the...Album Review: Marika Hackman, 'Big Sigh'