Clara Engel
A New Skin

A New Skin is Clara Engel’s second album of 2020, it came out at the tail end of last month, following on the heels of their stunning Hatching Under the Stars last April.  A New Skin marks a departure for Engel, as they played every instrument on the album, recording and producing as well.  The effect is a more intimate, closer album than Hatching, one that seems to have been written and recorded in the winter of our discontent, in the midst of a vicious global pandemic, with rising fascism the world over.  Nevermind the victory of Joe Biden in the US, or the fact that back home in Canada (Engel is a member of the Montréal ex-pat community and is now based in Toronto) the centrist Liberal Party maintains power.  These are dark times.  And Engel has the music for us.

The eight track collection begins with the meditative ‘Starry Eyed Goat,’ a gently plucked song and Engel’s distinctive voice.  I am partial to the second track, ‘The Garden is Sleeping,’ and its gently plucked guitar, atmospheric sound, and Engel’s lyrics more poetic than lyric:

the garden is sleeping
it isn’t dead
don’t go and worry
your pretty little head

the garden is sleeping
where will we bury our dead?
somewhere over the rainbow
between stardust and flesh

And whatever the source of the lyric, I can’t help but situate us in this moment.

The sonic texture of this album is so simple and yet so compelling, providing depth to the lyrics.  Engel is a singer/songwriter in the best sense of that over-used and tired term.  They create compelling soundscapes, their minimalism drawing out their musicality, and, concomitant to that, drawing attention to their lyrics.  Take this, the opening verse from ‘Little Alien Lost’:

gathering flowers to throw in a ditch
it’s a sad and beautiful world
loving’s a gamble
an overripe miracle
it’s a little alien lost in the woods.

I am also partial to ‘Night Tide,’ both for the textures of the music, but for the lyrics, ostensibly about the drowned, are so compelling I find myself replaying this track over and over:

what’s so different about the drowned?
I’ve seen them walking in the daylight
their eyes all storm and light
but cold and still
shipwrecks slumber deep below
the sinew and the bone
a bespoke curse
a little sea devil’s puckered mouth

are you coming home?
the queen of the underworld wants to know

a jazz band in a seaside dive
dissolves in the night tide
red horse rides a wave in empty space
what’s so different about the drowned?
I’ve seen them dancing cheek to cheek with the living
night still wet behind the ears
wide eyed stowaway, what are you doing here?

are you coming home?
the queen of the underworld wants to know

Using only a cigar box guitar, electric guitar, melodica and harmonica, Engel creates this soundscape for End Times.  I described Hatching thusly:

It’s sitting on the back balcony of your flat at 2am, wine glass in hand, your patio lights strung up above you.  The neighbours are all asleep, and you are the last person in the world.  This is an album for intimate settings, and it is best listened to on your headphones.

But A New Skin, it’s still 2am, but it’s cold and snowy outside, you’re inside, under a thick blanket as the wind howls outside, rattling your windowpanes.  The light comes from candles, no electric light, and nothing is coming from outside through the window, but you can see the snow swirling.  You are still the last person in the world, except for maybe your cat eying you suspiciously, and Engel still seeks to comfort.

Clara Engel is an artist who deserves greater recognition, for the bravery of their music in our times, and for the fact that they make the soundtrack of our lives.