There’s a yin/yang dichotomy at work in Leave to Remain. The quietly powerful sixth release from British singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams is a stylistic tug-of-war between Williams’s cutting, candid lyrics backed with sparse acoustic instrumentation and the glossy, psuedo-Blue production flourishes that occasionally align themselves more closely with a Starbucks PA speaker than anything Joni Mitchell would choose to court or spark. (Mitchell rendered that last jab meaningless by inking a deal with Starbucks’ Hear Music earlier this year, but you get the idea.)
Music this gentle with words so powerful deserves to be unobstructed. Luckily, the thick studio sheen that sporadically erupts via a heavily multitracked vocal or maudlin string arrangement (as on the otherwise intense “Let It Happen”) fails to obscure Williams’s gift for melody and incisive, introspective wordplay. Lyrics like “We’ve been fucking all afternoon/ Burning like fossil fuels/ I feel like you’ve turned me into a glass-bottom boat/ You see everything I hide/ But still keep me afloat” carry with them a curveball intensity that disarms nearly all reservations.
Although a song like the nimble, flowing folk of “Blue Onto You” is a pink moon too fragile not to be eclipsed by the antiseptic production, other tracks — the loping, darkly funny portrait of Internet sex, “Sandy L”; the love-struck “Glass-Bottom Boat” — manage to rise above the knob-twisting by sheer force of wit and Williams’s understated vocals. This is where the success of the album resides: In her attention to nuance, feeling, and song craft, she is a songwriter who earns the (however tired) comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake.
Despite the generic coffeehouse vibrations its production intermittently generates, Leave to Remain is a clever, moving modern folk record. It’s the best of Williams’s career — and still capable of outpacing Shine.