The Hollow

When Keeley Forsyth sings, you become acutely aware of the body emitting her voice. Not what it looks like, necessarily—not its age or shape or gender or skin color—but its raw physicality, its fundament of bones and sinew. She sings with her whole chest: diaphragm tightening, air filling the lungs, muscles twisting up the length of her throat, unleashing a presence that drips with the blood of the flesh that produced it. Some singers try to make their art sound effortless; Forsyth emphasizes the physical strain.

Perhaps this sound was born of desperation. In 2017, Forsyth, who has been acting professionally since she was a teenager—mostly on British television, though she also has recent credits in Guardians of the Galaxy and Poor Things—suffered a psychological and physical breakdown that left her tongue paralyzed for a month. The desperation of that experience was palpable on her 2020 debut, Debris, an album of haunted minimalist folk that she released at the age of 40. Limbs, which followed in 2022, was more conventionally beautiful. But on The Hollow, her third album, she puts her gale-force vibrato in the service of her most intense music yet.

“I’ve always enjoyed making people feel a bit uncomfortable with the sounds and music I make,” Forsyth once told The Quietus; here, it sometimes feels as if she wants to terrify. The album begins with stately restraint; over slow-moving organ tones, her voice mournful and controlled, she sketches an agonizing search for meaning intercut with a single jarring image of physical desolation, “Veins like dry stalks/That can never bring water.” The title track, which follows, begins with liturgical grace, but her voice—digitally layered, quavering severely—assumes the sound of a sob lodged in the throat, her words at first nearly unintelligible. A dirgelike mantra (“There is no help here/Not for me”) gives way to a startling cry—“Shake my life/Out of my mouth”—delivered with larynx-rending force.

Forsyth and her producer, Ross Downes, continue to channel the same influences that informed her previous music, principally Scott Walker’s Tilt and Meredith Monk, along with the spiritual yearning of Arvo Pärt and the cerebral goth of This Mortal Coil. Even when she raises the hairs on the back of your neck, she evokes an awesome, awful beauty. On “Eve,” she offers a tender tribute to her grandmother, who raised her: “Nothing can/Tear us apart/Let the body lay down/And die.” (On The Hollow, even the songs in a major key are about death.) On “Turning,” she is borne aloft, chanting and bellowing on the surging floodwaters of Colin Stetson’s arpeggiated saxophone; it’s a romantic landscape painting rendered in sound.

Forsyth’s lyrics have never been sharper, or stranger. “Slush” is an onomatopoeic poem about children playing in snow that assumes the doomy menace of one of Grimm’s fairy tales. In “A Shift,” she layers two songs in parallel: One is a spoken-word text about an actor donning their costume, the other a wailing rendition of “We Are Women, We Are Strong,” an anthem from the miners’ strikes of the early 1980s, a provocative fusion of class solidarity, feminism, and creative labor. On “In the Corner,” some of her more oblique constructions—“storm fallen days” and “an infinite glass secretion”—remind me, faintly, of ML Buch’s surreal menagerie of “flesh on air” and “flames shards goo,” but shot through with horror instead of twee.

The album takes its title from a mineshaft that Forsyth stumbled upon while wandering the countryside near her home, and much of the record feels charged with the sort of uncanny power that holes in the ground can hold over the imagination. In her most striking lyrics, Forsyth maps an eerie intersection of landscape, spirit, and the human body—“crossroads of flesh,” as she puts it in “In the Corner.” Branches grow through her sleeping body; dust wakes within her, a specter of death brought to life. The lyrics abound with roads and bridges, brown fields, clouds scraping at the land: scenes straight out of Breugel, terrifying images of what we might call the Old Wyrd Europe, where nature and fate are intertwined.

Most of her songs are mercifully short, many under three minutes long, as though Forsyth was aware that music of such intensity could easily overwhelm. The gentlest song is one of the shortest: “Creature,” which closes the record. Over spare, searching piano from her frequent collaborator Matthew Bourne, she sings, “There is no help here/Not for me,” reprising a line from “The Hollow.” But rather than desperate or harried, she sounds at peace. If the hollow is a destabilizing rupture, it is also a sanctuary—and a vessel, a source of strength; a resonant chamber, empty until sound spills forth.