Despite the flowing, stream-of-consciousness style she sings in, Ally Spaltro, or Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, has remained resolutely quiet when it comes to any press interaction around her new album After. It’s as if the uncompromising honesty displayed on record has left no room for the kind of arbitrary, arm’s length conversations that come with interviews. Spaltro has always been a fiercely candid songwriter, incorporating the kind of disturbing imagery in her lyrics that can make you wince, groan, but spin round and round in your mind, making you feel every syllable.
‘After’ follows her debut Ripley Pine; an ambitious, frantic first album that had all the raw, insecure kind of energy that you’d expect when you consider she wrote most of it as a teenager. It sounded imperfect and uncensored, like she had dotted the last ‘i’ on her lyric sheet and ran straight into the studio. This was mirrored musically as well, with frequent time signature changes and rash instrumental breakdowns contributing to a feeling of restlessness and agitation. Spaltro is 23 now, and whilst these issues might not have gone away, she is tackling them from an older, wiser perspective.
Opener ‘Vena Cava’ focuses further on the kind of visceral, bloodied imagery that she explored previously. ‘I still need your teeth round my organs’ she sang on Ripley Pine track You Are The Apple, and here she sings ‘the vena cava… / bringing blood into the chamber’, using the physical functions of the human body as tangible symbols of emotional movements and trauma. Spaltro’s voice is blessed with these natural dramatic properties, where every crack can be a moment of vulnerability and every grunt a statement of defiance. It can veer out of tune, like as it does in the sweeping finale of ‘Arkansas Daughter’, but these small imperfections and idiosyncrasies are all part of the story, providing colour to every line and heart to every note. ‘You build a nest of yellow yarn / you hope to God the yellow yarn / is soft enough to break your fall’ she sings on ‘Violet Clementine’, repeating it over and over again, her voice slowing turning into this venomous growl as it stops sounding like a warning and starts sounding like a threat.
There’s an unpredictability to these songs, as she interchanges even the most disturbing lyrical phrases with the mundane and the ordinary. ‘Now I’m sitting on a train / and I’m peeling an orange’ she starts on ‘Spat Out Spit’, before continuing ‘Will I awake to find I’m deep in the woods / And I’m snarling on all fours’. Even when she’s tackling these complex, existential issues, she sounds resolutely calm, as if a lifetime of answering the same question has desensitised her to their effect. And it’s this juxtaposition between the fragile and the aggressive that underpins Spaltro’s writing and delivery, creating these images and stories within her songs before pulling the rug out from the listener at expertly timed moments.
There’s a moment in opener ‘Violet Clementine’ where the song suddenly changes key. It’s innocuous enough, as a solo bass guitar slightly bends out of place before reintroducing the second phase of the tune at just a step down, like Spaltro and her band have quickly changed their minds but can’t bring themselves to start the song again. There’s a point being made here, that we are listening them in the purest and most primal stages of musical expression, playing as if every note and chord is pumping directly from their bloodstreams. And throughout the album, Spaltro regularly dodges convention when it comes to structure and form, creating these long, sprawling opuses that can change between jangly folk intros into Paranoid Android style breakdowns. The excellent ‘Penny Licks’ starts as a sparse folk number as she sings ‘Maybe when we’re gone / you can have our bedroom’, before erupting into this rousing, chest beating coda as the backing choir stands up to sing ‘we will crane our necks’ in unison. It’s an obvious nod to Crane Your Neck on Ripley Pine, where she once sang “And if you’re crying by the moon / In the sun you better lift up your chin” as if she knew the sort of strength that was required but was still unable to show it. Now though, she’s standing taller, and there’s a feeling of optimism that hangs beneath After that she might not have been capable of before.
Performing is clearly a very purifying process for Spaltro, as if a song or an album can be used as a box to organise the complexities of her mind and her life. On ‘Sunday Shoes’, she confronts the death of her sister with images of her ‘eating dirt in the flower bed’ before being ‘chased by wolves’. It’s the simplest song on the album, with her vocal sitting cleanly above a noodling guitar. This moment of calm is disarming; almost as if we are getting a private glimpse into the first time she’s had a chance to truly reflect on the event. Spaltro’s lyrics are often wild and chaotic, but despite the gut wrenchingly sad nature of this song, she remains firmly in control this time as we are left with this gorgeous ‘you will become your most favourite colour’ refrain.
Spaltro was young when she wrote Ripley Pine, and with its raw, blood and guts energy, it felt like she had thrown everything she had into this insoluble liquid where the parts could move around and bounce off each other, but never quite connect. You’d be pushed to find any sort of thread that flows across this record, and the lack of cohesion here might prove too distracting for some. But even if After is an altogether neater album, where the vocals are more in tune and the guitars in time, you can still feel the blood pumping through it. She lives inside her songs, creating these pulsating, breathing vessels for her fraught and restless spirit. And for anyone willing to stick around long enough to listen, they are richly and endlessly rewarding.