Album Review: The Impossible Girl – The Sky Is Calling
In the interests of full disclosure I would like to make it clear that I am one of the 1,319 people that backed Kim’s kickstarter for this album. Therefore, whilst I have tried to approach this review as objectively as possible, you should be aware that I do not tend to just throw money at things I think I may like.
Now that’s out of the way let’s get down to the business of actually looking at this artist and album.
The Impossible Girl was originally the name of Kim Boekbinder’s first solo album but has since become her musical alias. Before her first album Kim performed with her sister, Zoe, in the cabaret band Vermillion Lies. However, I didn’t become aware of her as a musician/artist until she wrote this post all about pre-selling gigs over on Warren Ellis’s blog. Even after that, which I thought was a rather excellent idea, I was too dumb to actually go and listen to her music. I have only myself to blame.
As I eventually found out, The Impossible Girl (album) was a rare thing of quiet beauty built around simple loops and melodies with Kim’s voice weaving everything together to form a musical love letter to anyone smart enough to stop and listen. The array of instruments involved, from the standard set of guitar/piano/violins to the supporting cast of found objects (e.g. glasses/dishes in Open/Avocado), all helped to shape the landscape without ever overwhelming the listener. It’s quite mesmerising and I would recommend it to anyone regardless of their personal taste. With that in mind, I was intrigued to see how this approach in her song writing had evolved for The Sky Is Calling.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the theme of the album. From the get go this was established as an album about SPACE, which is a pretty vast subject to tackle at the best of times. Droves of prog-rock and synth bands have spent their entire careers writing about it. The problem with space, as Douglas Adams observed, is that it’s big. As much as I love The Impossible Girl it is a very personal, as well as fantastical, album. So I honestly wasn’t sure how Miss Boekbinder was going to approach such an expansive subject.
The answer turned out to be incredibly simple and effective. She takes us on a journey. The album starts at the beginning and progresses to the distant end. That is to say, it begins at the start of everything – The Big Bang – and progresses, through the past and present, into the future.
Like I said, simple and effective.
After the initial four second synth recreation of that pivitol moment we are pitched straight into the heaving cosmic uncertainty of particles being born, joined, separated, re-joined and shaped into new elements in the first main track of the album: Stellar Alchemist. The bubbling synth loops and steady rhythm capture the idea of fluid creation whilst the Impossible Girl’s voice twists and weaves through the flux with ease giving the song its form. She embodies the Stellar Alchemist and, in doing so, transports the listener in to this brave new land.
Lyrically, the next track, Fix You Good, leaps forward to the idea of humanity attempting to master creation in the lab. Musically, this track incorporates the first use of repeated, layered vocal motifs. This technique will become a leitmotif of the album and harks back to songs from T.I.G., like Open/Avocado. However, its use in this particular song, combined with the vocal imitation of the mid-synth (alto) loop, helps to give the song a more regimented, industrial feel. In turn, this helps to lock the previously fluid, ambiguous possibilities presented in the previous song into a clear pattern. The elements have been tamed.
The title track then breaks from this new found form with an ode to exploration. You should go and listen to it here. This track essentially captures the soul and DNA of this album. It incorporates all of its major song writing elements – simple repetition, layered vocals, and a multitude of synths, to name just a few – and uses them artfully to describe a personal fascination with the cosmos that is instantly relatable for all of us dreamers. The Drake Equation then builds on this, asking the age-old question – ‘Are We Alone?‘.
It says a lot more about me than I would usually care to admit that the mid-point of our journey, Hand to Mouth, is far and away my favourite song on the album. That’s not to say that it’s the best song on the album. But it’s the one that affected me the most on a genuine, personal level.
On my first listen I was already enjoying the album by the time the initial, sparse, synth sequence kicked in. I was glad that I’d backed this album and felt that I had already got my moneys worth. But this song took me by surprise. Like I said before, I was already very clear that this was an album about SPACE. So when an acutely personal song exploring self-doubt, perseverance and the drive to improve and get better/be better materialised from nowhere, it hit me hard. I wasn’t expecting it, and it took my breath away. I ended up listening to it at least four or five times before I could carry on with the rest of the album.
From a purely technical perspective, it’s the drums that carry the song. The fragile nature of that first synth sequence combined with the minimal guitar could have grounded the song and bogged it down. But the drums are relentless. They drive the song forward, never allowing it to falter, and this mirrors the lyrical drive and determination in Kim’s vocal delivery. Few artists can give voice to lines as easily maligned as, “Will I ever be happy? Look at me now, I’ve got it all, I’m still sad somehow.” or, “Always finding a reason not to be loved.” without spiraling into trite self-pity. But she does it, and it works because self-pity is not the point of the song. It’s the journey – the getting through. I could go on, but all you need to understand from these particular paragraphs is that Hand to Mouth is my personal song of the year. And I never saw it coming.
The next track, Falling Apart, continues this exploration of the personal but takes it and relates it to the larger world; cleverly disguising itself behind the facade of a bouncy, pop song. All of which is then subverted when we come to my second favourite track of the album – Animal.
Animal is a primal, multi-layered, exploration of sense and sexuality told from the perspective of an inventor building a female A.I. that can never be satisfied. Why? Because she lacks the fundamental, natural, ability to feel. It’s a fun song and serves to diffuse any underlying melancholia that more sensitive listeners may have carried over from the previous two songs. It also brings us neatly back to science and exploration.
The following track, Alien, is structured in such a way as to detach from the rest of the album. It slows right down and uses vocal layering to evoke a shifting in the musical ether. Personally, it called to mind the shimmering lights and shifting gas clouds so often used to represent the alien, or other, in countless sci-fi movies. Whilst I originally had some doubts about this song – so jarring is the shift in tempo – I’ve warmed up to it on further playthroughs. I eventually realised that, in some ways, it is the best conceptual song on the album as its structural difference so completely embraces and embodies the track’s title. To Be Touched explores this theme even further with a highly evolved consciousness craving the physical touch of another being. But again, at its core, it is a personal song.
And this is the point at which all the themes of the album, and the musical history of Kim Boekbinder herself, tie together. Yes, this is an album about SPACE. But it is also an album about the self. She has successfully taken this vast theme and used it to explore the deeply personal whilst incorporating the fantastical, as she did previously in The Impossible Girl. Likewise, all of the core song writing mechanics exhibited in her first album are here, just on a grander scale.
The final song, Planet 216 (which is, actually an asteroid) is a celebration of life. The main refrain, a defiant mantra:
“In my solitude I wrote three commandments: You will be fierce, you will be fragile, you will be free.”
The album’s journey has been completed. But the song acknowledges that the personal journey of the listener, and the artist herself, continues; and, like all good art, it gives the listener something to take with us on our way.
I strongly recommend you do both of those things.