Having released five wonderful studio albums over the last 15 years, Gabrielle Papillon easily stands alongside artists like Greg Laswell, Tori Amos, Ben Folds and Joanna Newsom as one of today’s best singer/songwriters. Indeed, her mixture of sweetly cautious singing, graceful lyricism, and sophisticated folk/rock tapestries makes her a highly distinctive, moving, and consistent creator. In other words, hers is a sound of bittersweet, luscious empowerment, and her latest offering, Keep the Fire, is her greatest observation yet. Filled with both charming introspections and catchy outcries—all of which are delivered via engrossing, ambitious and dynamic arrangements—it’s a true gem in the genre.
While Keep the Fire feels very much like a sibling to its predecessors, Papillon also sees it as a bold new step because it finds her exploring, in her words, a more “art-pop progression” (including “strings and drama, keys, and evocative percussion”). This new style is due in part to the influences of producer Daniel Ledwell—who also helmed her last record, 2015’s The Tempest of Old—and mixer Corey LeRue (Neon Dreams), both of whom also play on the record, alongside several other guest musicians (such as percussionist Jordi Comstock, bassist/backing vocalist Sean MacGillivray and violinist Kinley Dowling). The result is a ceaselessly captivating “life score” (as Papillon calls it) that exemplifies not only how much she has grown as an artist, but also how striving, multifaceted and rewarding the singer/songwriter landscape can be.
As you might expect from its title, “Overture for the Fire Keeper” is a brief instrumental rooted in a rustic classical aesthetic. Truthfully, it’s not especially complex or varied, focusing entirely on a single string melody with delicate accompaniment, yet its hook is gripping enough to stay with you forever (as is the surrounding cacophony of emotive pastoral chaos). It subtly glides into “Three Years,” an initially gentle lament that intersperses the previous score (as well as other orchestration) in-between and behind shuffling percussion, period crunchy guitar riffs and Papillon’s resolute phrases. It evolves tastefully towards a dense middle passage before dying back down to somber stillness as it concludes. Together, this opening duo showcases precisely what makes Keep the Fire idiosyncratic, as well as why Papillon and company are such an invaluable and treasurable team.
Of course, she hasn’t completely abandoned her lighter and sparser roots, either. “Deep in the Earth” exhales quaint romanticism, both in terms of its sunny, almost country-rock instrumentation and Papillon’s humble, matter-of-fact performance (that evokes the similar cadences of Suzanne Vega and Sarah McLachlan). In contrast, “Hold On, I Will” is a demoralized piano ballad whose blend of forlorn chords, angelic harmonies and reflective promises (“We will make it / I won’t break / I can take it”) are downright haunting, whereas “When the Heart Attacks” is relatively quiet aside from its askew rhythmic heart. Unsurprisingly, the anthemic and chameleonic title track is the standout of the whole LP, as its simultaneously an individual triumph of invigoration and the finest example of how Keep the Fire maintains her established persona while also venturing into the aforementioned fresh territories.
The remaining third of the full-length maintains a dreamy, somewhat proletarian cohesion that reveals how strong Papillon is as a lone singer/songwriter with as few embellishments as possible. It’s a very understated yet powerful bulk of compositions with which to close the disc, and the final moments of orchestration give the sequence a grand sense of cyclical elegance. In addition, these selections provide a significant contrast to the more complex pieces that preceded them, further emphasizing how significant a work Keep the Fire is for Papillon and the genre in general.