It’s been the most ironic contradiction of the last 12 months – where to find stillness in a world that has ceased to move forward. Even in the enforced seclusion of lockdown, life has been a hurly-burly waltzer ride of emotions. Thwarted ambitions, ruined relationships and – for the truly unfortunate – an overwhelming sense of tragedy and grief.
We pressed the pause button on life, but there’s no pausing the often overwhelming experience of simply being human. ‘Bliss Land’, the third album by Brighton singer-songwriter Hattie Cooke, is perhaps the perfect distillation of that paradox, where intensely personal confessions bubble beneath a veneer of glacial, synthpop sangfroid.
“It’s about that liminal space between the past and the future, when you’re on the threshold of something,” says Cooke. She’s describing one track in particular, the tentative ‘One Foot Out The Door’, but it’s a maxim that works perfectly for the whole album. This is a collection that could only be borne from the global limbo between pre- and post-Covid existence.
Opener, ‘I Get By’, is an immaculate evocation of the silent, traffic-free void of early lockdown. “I go for a walk / I wait until it’s late / Wait until it’s quiet” she sings, with studied indifference. “The whole world’s sitting still / Like summer days upon the hill”. There’s a Zen-like quality to her lyrics – minimal and intuitive, they arrive like soporific cruise missiles. Concentrated torpor, delivered with devastating accuracy.
‘Bliss Land’ feels like a breakthrough album. Cooke’s self-titled 2016 debut added thrift shop synths to the impassioned strumming and vulnerable vocals of the traditional acoustic singer-songwriter. Winsome and reflective, it reeked of coffee shop gigs and soul-destroying pub backrooms. ‘The Sleepers’, from 2019, was a curveball, an instrumental electronic soundtrack to an imagined movie, the dystopian tale of – wait for it – a global pandemic tangled up in sinister conspiracy theories. ‘Bliss Land’, impressively, is a natural marriage of the two, and Cooke has honed her ice-cold, cinematic soundscapes into economic shards of pop. Only one track here exceeds the four-minute mark, and all but the instrumental ‘Fantasies’ are topped by vocals that are unmistakably more mature than on that endearingly lo-fi debut.
Ah yes, that old bugbear. Maturity. “To tell the truth, I miss my youth / Those long-lost days I cling to” she sings with an audible sigh on ‘Youth’.
“Go and get drunk / Falling in love with everyone I talk to”. It’s the timeless lament of the freshly turned 30-something, helpless as the blissful wreckage of adolescence drifts silently away. But it’s given an extra frisson by the stasis of early 2021 – Cooke turned 30 in January this year. And what’s the point of being on that threshold when there’s currently nothing on the other side? With nowhere to turn, she looks inward and wistfully picks over the bones of failed relationships on ‘Lovers Game’ – “Couldn’t keep each other apart / Now I won’t even walk past your door”.
There’s a contemporary sheen to the music, a stainless-steel sparkle that never quite masks the influences of her upbringing. Growing up on a 1990s Sussex council estate with a vinyl-obsessed father, the dwindling synthpop of the previous decade clearly seeped into her subconscious. ‘Cars’ boasts chiming guitars and a wash of synths, like Furniture doing battle with the Cocteau Twins, while ‘Invisible Lines’ carries faint echoes of early Human League. But these are no retro affectations; she’s not one of the geeky boys, tinkering with vintage patches to get the perfect Korg 700 sound. Like the lyrics, it’s instinctive and economic, and the polished shimmer never detracts from the personal confessions housed within. Still, if she wants mainstream success, she might just find it. At least half the tracks here have daytime Radio 6 Music written all over them.
“I know I should be doing something different” intones Cooke on album closer ‘Summer Time’, a track steeped in heartbreaking poignancy. “I spend my days walking round town / A glass of red in the afternoon to wash my medication down”. To paraphrase Alan Bennett, she’s not happy, but she’s not unhappy about it. And in that, perhaps, she actually finds stillness.
It’s a moment that at least offers reassurance to those of us who feel similarly marooned, and maybe that’s the best we can really wish for. Brighter days, one hopes, will come for us all. And not least, perhaps, for Hattie Cooke. The sleeve of ‘Bliss Land’ shows her hovering nervously beside a symbolically open door, and this hugely accomplished album suggests her own personal threshold is waiting patiently to be crossed.