It floats around the room as it tumbles out of the speakers, coating the atmosphere in a bath of perfect-temperature water.
Félicia Atkinson’s music has long sat at a midpoint between discomfort and soothing ambience. Her early albums in the mid ’00s felt like an even freakier off-shoot of the then-prominent freak folk scene, and her work this decade has seen the artist pushing her work deeper into experimental electronica and strengthening her characteristic spoken word passages in order to encompass and encapsulate all things strange, critical and erotic. Her latest, The Flower and the Vessel, continues to develop her key themes and ideas while still offering an album that feels more complete and nuanced than any she’s released so far. It’s musical palette is her most distinct, and while her poetry takes a more secondary role to the musical passages, the sense of flow between these two worlds is liquid smooth.
Given how unflinchingly unique Atkinson’s style is, it should come as no surprise that the music here is unquestionably hers: Her whispered, language-hopping poetry again tops lengthy, abstract drone compositions. There is something of a newfound monumentalism, as well as an increased sense of calm in the music, that sets The Flower and the Vessel apart from Atkinson’s previous work. There’s a stronger sense of melody, as is immediately present on the album’s second track, “Moderato Cantabile.” The composition is built around modal piano motifs and booming sub bass that highlights the giant gaps between the mix’s high end and its bottom.
The Flower and the Vessel is also Atkinson’s most instrumentally and sonically daring record yet. The music is defined by a contrast between three sound worlds: Atkinson’s chilling voice, an overtly pleasing instrumental ensemble (piano, vibraphone, Wurlitzer keyboards, steel drums) and manipulated field recordings. These natural sounds are treated both as an organic foil to Atkinson’s electronics and a further reminder of the artificiality of her work (long one of her favored themes). A move like the inclusion of a sound resembling birds calls manipulated into robotic territory on “Un Ovale Vert” showcases Atkinson’s ability to cleverly manipulate listeners’ perceptions, nodding to the natural world while never fully participating in it.
Atkinson beneficially counters the album’s overarching pleasantness with some moments of more disorienting music. “Linguistics of Atoms,” specifically, is the most dissonant composition here, featuring clustered piano interjections and big swathes of granular noise. The more abrasive material continues on The Flower and the Vessel’s closing track, “Des Pierres,” a side-long collaboration with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. While there are increased bits of noise and a generally more confrontational tone to both Atkinson’s vocal delivery and the music, this is far from the distorted drone you would expect from O’Malley. Like in his collaborations with Peter Rehberg or Oren Ambarchi, the musician’s role is more of a supporter, and all the better for it. He simply provides a snarling edge to the track, helping sustain its tension across its eighteen minutes.
Atkinson’s breezy sound world, coupled with The Flower and the Vessel’s massive length, makes the album a completely immersive listen. Without knocking the intricacy of the album’s compositions or Atkinson’s poetry, her focus seems to be on listener experience over analytical deconstruction. On “You Have to Have Eyes,” the whirlpool of the titular refrain doesn’t so much signify anything as it does instill a general sense of madness and urgency. The third quarter of the eight-minute track bring the album towards one of its most chaotic moments, with a horde of voices converging around the listener and swallowing the surrounding instrumentation into an indistinguishable mass. Atkinson’s music floats around the room as it tumbles out of the speakers, coating the atmosphere in a bath of perfect-temperature water.