The human voice is a beautiful instrument. Used correctly, it can send us from awe to weep at the merest inflection; something proponents of other instruments can only dream about. Áine Duffy clearly has a beautiful voice: one full of range and depth.
But, as anyone who has thrown a Steinway down a stairs will know, a beautiful instrument doesn’t automatically make beautiful music. While ‘With Bells On’ is a few levels above smashing a piano, it certainly smacks of unutilised potential.
The first thing you’ll notice about the album is, as alluded to earlier, Ms Duffy’s voice. She is well capable of going both low and high, but seems mostly intent on the latter. While you could argue that both Kate Bush and Tori Amos picked careers out of the higher register, they pick their moments to venture up through the octaves.
Duffy generally sits at the high pitch, occasionally reaching down for something deeper. It could work oh so well if she could keep the sound clear and pure, but often it seems airy and, well, annoying.
On the chorus of He Knew, for example, Duffy gives a series of whoops that sounds more like she’s battling hiccups than elucidate a sentiment. Keep the Streets Clean, meanwhile, offers more of a police siren than siren call and Red on You’s repeated high pitched shout of “Immediately” is tiresome shortly after it starts. It’s further unfortunate that it takes quite a while to stop too.
That’s not where the problems end either. Won’t Go offers a mish-mash of electro, funk and soul influences that just never sit well together.
Wallet, Keys, Phone seems like an attempt at some social commentary on the issue of social distraction. It fails to be. It sounds more like someone overly concerned with minor nuisance. “You spend so much of evening looking for these things, so much of your weekend looking for these things,” Duffy sings as the chorus.
Things are not all bad though. I Can’t Help You Now and On the Roof are incredibly simple – Duffy is accompanied by just a piano on the former, just an acoustic guitar on the latter – and are the best showcases of her voice in the 35 minutes of ‘With Bells On’. It’s pertinent that she never tries to stretch her vocals here either and the restraint is a welcome change for the listener.
Excuses, too, is a fine song where Duffy lets the guitar and drums lead a rock charge with her voice an amiable passenger. The scream she lets out at the chorus’s climax is also her best just of her higher register on the album.
Áine Duffy has a beautiful voice and can craft a nice song. On ‘With Bells On’ she all too rarely manages both feats at the same time.