In the seven years since Karen Elson’s The Ghost Who Walks, there have been glimpses of the woman who was to emerge on Double Roses. A haunted take on Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat” for the film Still Alice, joining Michael Stipe for a rendition of “Ashes To Ashes” at last year’s David Bowie tribute concert and reimagining Lou Reed’s “Vicious” for Record Store Day or Stevie Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” for the Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me displayed a restiveness that suggested there was more to her music than her debut album suggested.
Double Roses, named for a poem in Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, continues her ethereal musicality, but embraces her Britishness within. Arrangements boast silky textures that blanket listeners in swirling strings and falling harp notes. Elson’s powdery voice rises from this mist hypnotic, suggesting Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins or a less fraught Kate Bush. She and producer Jonathan Wilson conjure soundscapes that serve as mystical tableaus for her often sad or resigned words to shimmer against.
Yes, this is certainly a divorce album. Double Roses is personal. As a harp flutters to the ground on the opening “Wonderblind,” Elson brings us into her world with a clear-eyed profession. In her rose petal soft alto, she welcomes, “Hey love, it’s the end of an era/ Time isn’t on our side…” The creeping “Hell and High Water” is a redolent hymn to courage and survival that would be at home in Nicks’ catalog, while the laconic country amble of “A Million Stars” is a breathy pin in the betrayal. Both are personal, yet universal in how common these experiences, these feelings are. Anyone who’s fraught can put these songs on, pour a stiff drink and sink into the evocative truths and beauty.
To address the other lightning rod: there is the lone Patrick Carney-produced track. “Call Your Name.” A bit dryer than the rest, it stands as a stark elegy to a relationship and putting one’s life back together. From its austere beginnings—merely acoustic guitar and her silvery voice—“Name” traces the demise and healing that emerges from a hard end. Given the once public fractiousness between the Black Key and Elson’s ex-husband Jack White, it’s easy to assign send-up intent. But beyond gossip, “Name” serves as elegant baroque pop for a songwriter who’s invested her time wisely, digging deeper into her emotions.
By the time Elson closes the album with the lovely simplicity of “Distant Shore,” she’s weathered the storm. Realizing she needs no one to save her, she whispers, “I am alone, I am free/ No one to come and conquer me” as Benmont Tench’s kneaded piano and Laura Marling’s counter vocals float up to wipe the sadness clean. A whisper, sigh, prayer and somehow catharsis, Roses balms life’s harshness.