This latest album was composed and recorded in "impersonal hotel rooms in foreign cities" as Atkinson ambitiously toured the world while pregnant, making plenty of field recordings in far-flung locales like Tasmania and the Mojave Desert along the way. I am not surprised that those conditions were particularly amenable for her hushed, dreamlike, and ASMR-inspired vocal work, but I did not expect the underlying music to be quite as fleshed-out and hauntingly lovely as this. While Atkinson cites both Japanese flower arrangement and childhood memories of French impressionist composers as significant influences, her elegantly fragmented and floating reveries are uniquely and distinctively her own. I do wonder if the Ikebana influence was the final missing puzzle piece for Atkinson's artistic vision though, as The Flower And The Vessel strikes me as her strongest release to date. Her aesthetic has not changed all that much (nor would I want it to), but her intuitions for focus, clarity, and balance have definitely become stronger and more unerring.
As befits an album quietly recorded with minimal equipment in hotel rooms, The Flower And The Vessel opens in subdued, enigmatic, and blearily soft-focus fashion.After a brief introduction ("L'Apr√®s-Midi") that is essentially just Atkinson's murmuring and whispering voice, the album begins in earnest with the shivering drones and rippling melancholy piano arpeggios of "Moderato Cantabile."It is quite a lovely and tender piece, but the lion's share of Atkinson's artistry is devoted to the textures and dynamics, as floating and swelling tones alternately crackle, sensuously throb, or hang in the air like a warm mist.It is not until the third piece ("Shirley to Shirley"), however, that the album truly catches fire.Musically, "Shirley" is an elegantly blurred and simmering bit of slow-motion psychedelia, as a languorous swirl of field recordings and synths floats above a lazily fluid bass line.The best part is the vocals though, as Atkinson shares a cryptic and confessional-sounding monologue that is multitracked and processed to sound eerily supernatural.From that point onward, The Flower And the Vessel blossoms into quite a quietly stunning album, as even a simple piece like "Un Ovale Vert" is a rapturous reverie of overlapping ripples and submerged snatches of evocative field recordings.
While "Shirley to Shirley" is never quite unseated as the release‚Äôs high-water mark, the second half of the album shows Atkinson to be an absolute sorceress at wielding slow-building tension and conjuring wonderfully disorienting and hallucinatory scenes."You Have To Have Eyes" is an especially striking and mesmerizing example of Atkinson's unique and creepy mystique, as her whispered monologue slowly builds to a dense web of buzzing textures, obsessively repeating loops, and snippets of a truly haunting child-like voice.It is a beguilingly fragile, intimate, and lovely piece that also makes me feel like I am about to be murdered by a demonic doll in an abandoned orphanage.Atkinson gamely allows those sinister shadows to deepen further with the murky and pointillist "Linguistics Of Atoms," but the gently dreamlike "Lush" steers the arc back towards beauty and human warmth, resembling a hypnotic and ritualistic gamelan performance under a starry desert sky.I quite like Atkinson‚Äôs "ASMR-damaged Fourth World dreamscape" aesthetic and it surfaces a few more times before the album ends, but the two pieces that diverge from it a bit are more noteworthy.The best is the achingly lovely and gently swaying "Joan," as a gorgeously woozy and wobbly organ theme slowly emerges from the quavering thrum of the opening collage (the chattering birds are a nice touch too).Atkinson's bleary and beautiful organ melodies return once more for the closing epic "Des Pierres," but it does not linger in sensuous, quavering warmth forever, as guest Stephen O'Malley helps build the piece to a roiling crescendo of pulsing guitar noise.
While it admittedly takes a few songs before The Flower And The Vessel begins to make a deep impression, it definitely makes one, as Atkinson pulled together quite a strikingly beautiful and seductively hallucinatory batch of songs."Shirley to Shirley" easily ranks among the finest pieces that Atkinson has ever recorded, but almost all of her recent albums have had least one rapturously sublime centerpiece.The difference with this one is merely that the gulf between "Shirley" and the surrounding material it is not a wide one at all: several of the songs on the last half of the album would have easily been stand-out pieces on any previous release.That said, they belong here and here alone.While the consistently high level of quality is a delight, The Flower And The Vessel is quite an impressive work as a focused, compelling, and immersive whole as well.The appeal transcends music, as it is closer to a hypnagogic, impressionistic travelogue of remote locales shared with quiet, tender intimacy.The Flower And The Vessel is Atkinson's defining masterpiece (and probably the single most beautiful and effective embodiment of the Shelter Press aesthetic as well).I love this album.
Samples can be found here.