Here at Music Closeup, as the name implies, we cover a wide range of music that’s submitted for review, from DIY indie artists to Ringo Starr and Bruce Springsteen.
Letters Under Floorboards was different. Being personally close to both the artist, Hannah Rose Platt, and co-producer, Thomas Collison, we’ve heard the songs develop live, and lived with the record for almost a year before the release date.
So, we’ve come at this review with a different perspective, particularly conscious of the significance of the lyrics and production. Armed with the lyric booklet – its thematic photography reproduced here with kind permission – we dive deep into the sentiments and tone of a cohesive album that will take you to dark places but, ultimately, emerges into the light.
There’s hum of feedback and the rattle of strings, then Illuminate launches in sounding warm, joyful, all-encompassing. It’s a statement of intent. This isn’t the Hannah Rose Platt of Portraits. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Illuminate is underpinned by the celesta, giving a lullaby cadence brimming with a sense of innocence and a fresh start, absent any of the unsettling undertones that instrument carries in the Harry Potter score and The Nutcracker.
Initially, Illuminate’s lyrics seem to belie the upbeat sound: “So afraid to trace the beauty back through your past mistakes/all your worries cling to fear.” Soon, however, it becomes clear that the optimistic tone of the score is absolutely appropriate; vital, even. The song is about recognising and accepting trauma and coming out the other side stronger: “racing sorrow, chasing peace/slow down and surrender to the release.”
In the wake of private pain, perhaps there’s catharsis in shining spotlights on it with a singalong chorus: “Won’t hold onto the blame/trying to black out all of your pain/let it illuminate/light up and guide the way.”
As a music industry professional who’s made a name in the burgeoning UK Americana scene, she has friends in high places. Interesting, then, that her collaboration with Danny George Wilson of Danny and The Champions of The World and Grand Drive is not a duet. Rather, his contribution to Illuminate is almost subconscious, more of a texture.
Chanel and Cigarettes is already a live staple but here it’s deeper and darker with creeping bass and percussion. Platt’s sultry vocal, reminiscent of the 1930s movie star she sings about, is clear. The intentions of the song’s subject are even clearer: “a worn out man with a broken down car/at least that’s what he told his wife back home/He slips off his wedding ring behind his back for the second time this week.”
What seems like a character study of a seedy philanderer takes an unexpected turn, for his latest conquest isn’t at all what she seems. A mature, unsettling story develops, which is all the more impressive considering that Platt started writing the song when she was just ten years old. Avoiding spoilers, the song bears a close listen to really catch the nuances of its twists and turns.
Sculptor is a difficult but important listen, for the metaphor of a manhandled artwork is soon revealed as a woman that’s being damaged and shaped until she’s a shadow of her former self, a construct designed only to please another: “bend her then break her then mould her/then break her and mend her again/telling her she should be grateful to you.”
The repetition and contradictions in the lyrics swiftly dissect the insidious mechanisms of manipulation and gaslighting, as well as the self-defeating nature of it all. Far from “safely knowing she’ll never leave,” the cruel, dehumanising treatment is actually the impetus needed to break free: “you forget that she’s flesh and blood/and her heart is on fire/with a burning desire/that will lift her from where she once stood.” The lap steel blanketing that passage indicates that brightness is returning, but adds to the mournful sense of disappointment; they don’t recognise themselves or each other anymore, and things didn’t need to be this way.
When Thomas Collison was awarded Americana Music Association (AMA-UK) Instrumentalist of The Year, it’s not clear if the voters knew just how that apt it was. On this album, he plays bass, lap steel, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, piano and Wurlitzer. For Your Way, it’s keyboard – the instrument he’s most known for playing with Danny & The Champions of The World and The Dreaming Spires – that most prominently backs up Platt’s guitar.
The song dives further into the realities of a power imbalance relationship. There’s a dual sense of an almost child-like eagerness to please combined with a world-weary realisation that the constant effort is futile and ultimately harmful: “I’ve had all my fears confirmed/Okay, let’s do this your way/I’ll just shut my mouth/keep quiet and fade away.” The ending is ambiguous. Is it giving up, or is it self-preservation and moving on?
Platt is known for her story songs and so it’s significant to say that Brooklyn, New York is the most heartrending of a strong repertoire. Inspired by the film Brooklyn staring Saoirse Ronan, the song is equally as cinematic. A hopeful immigrant imagines the future of helping to build a young nation and building a family as he sails past the Statue of Liberty.
Each stanza is a letter home and they gradually reveal that the American Dream has become a nightmare. The narrator was needed to build the city, but he saw none of the benefits. All used up, he was left to grow old alone, neither able to afford to send for his love nor to go home. The poignancy and preciseness of Platt’s lyrics here lead to one of the most spine-chilling moments in music that we can remember in recent times: “I miss your voice/I miss your laugh/I miss the faces of the children we won’t have.”
The sound of Brooklyn is sympathetically rich, with subtly Celtic elements of a penny whistle, a fiddle, and doleful harmonies representing all the women left behind. Get those tissues ready.
That was deep so it’s time for some light relief ::checks notes:: no, it’s actually time for a song about the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Audrey in 1957, which killed over 400 people. Classic Hannah.
The hurricane hit hardest in Cameron, Lousiana, which saw the majority of the fatalities and over 90% of the buildings were damaged. Written like a first person recollection mixing folk memory and fact, When Audrey Came To Call describes what it’s like to cower in the eye of a storm, knowing how bad it will get. Collison’s tremolo guitar stalks the edges before the insistent beat of acoustic guitar lashes relentlessly and lap steel adds to the sense of tension.
Platt and her writing partner – her step-father Chris Stevens, from The Da Vincis, who were fêted by John Peel – play on the coincidence that both the hurricane and the town held Christian names: “Crashing his defenses…her timing was perfection/like a jealous lover’s kiss.”
Checkmate slows the pace down, but the emotional onslaught continues. Throughout the record, we keep returning to the damage within abusive relationships; the “shards of your heart” of Illuminate, the shavings to hide in a heart shaped box” of Sculptor, and now “shards of your pain.” Importantly, it’s ‘his’ pain that she “so weary of treading/so carefully dreading.’ Having so much to give, constantly buoying up another without that support and care being reciprocated is draining: “it’s hard to play by the rules when they’re changing/and you keep score.”
The vocal is all at once resigned, poignant and powerful. And that’s key – the ‘victim’ is no walk over. She’s a survivor. She’s any one of us. She knows exactly what’s going on and she’s upset but she won’t put up with it forever; eventually the master strategist will be outmaneuvered and, no matter who loses, the game will end: “Go ahead, make a final move/I’m stuck here with nothing to lose/two spaces forward and three spaces back/it’s too late. Checkmate.”
The subdued song is bathed in pedal steel provided by one of our favourite Champions of the World, Henry Senior Jr. Checkmate would surely be the closing song were it not for what Platt has planned for you later. Prepare yourself.
I Will Tell You When feels like a companion piece to When Audrey Came To Call. It’s another first person recollection of rural devastation, but this time the narrator recalls an event from her childhood, from her naive, uncomprehending perspective.
It’s based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recollections of her pioneer childhood. It wasn’t the rose-tinted idyll that your half-memory of Little House on The Prairie would have you think. In 1874, the family suffered through a plague of Biblical proportions. Mild-mannered grassshoppers turned into flying locusts and approximately 3.5 trillion swarmed through North America devouring leather from farm implements, wool from the backs of sheep and, of course, crops. Once the 1800 mile long, 110 mile wide swarm had passed, entire communities were ruined.
I Will Tell You When, another co-write by Platt and Stevens takes up the tale with 7 year old Laura Inglass ushered to safety as she asks “Daddy, can you tell me why the sky has turned so dark?” Seeking to protect his daughter, Charles Ingalls – voiced here by Sid Griffin of The Long Ryders and The Coal Porters – invents comforting platitudes to explain the strange commotion: “it’s just God turning down the lights…it’s just the sound of angels’ wings.”
Listeners get audio clues to the true nature of the onslaught as layers of insect noises and unsettling ambient sounds build, then Platt and Stevens’ sense of storytelling comes into its own as the scale of devastation is revealed, and the roles are reversed: “That was the only time I saw my Daddy cry…My Daddy changed forever the day the locusts came.”
It says something about the intensity of the record that Black Smoke, an anthem for the #MeToo generation, comes as something of a respite. Or perhaps it just speaks to familiarity borne of the prevalence of being hassled for daring to go out while being a woman: “Can’t you read unease on my face/as you slide another uninvited arm ’round my waist/too pretty/too plain/a prude/a whore/fair game/Which label will you give me as I shrug you away?”
Interestingly, this kind of ‘everyday’ public interaction is shown to share mechanisms with the kind of coercive controlling behavior that’s usually hidden behind closed doors: “You feel you’re justified to turn everyone against me just ’cause I burned your pride/you wield your power with anger, shame and tears/trading in my weaknesses and all of my fears.”
We love a bit of Drop D here at Music Closeup so we’re big fans of this rockier sound for Platt. Her vocal is dripping in exasperation, while Collison adds fire and colour with lead and lap steel guitars. Our new favourite band is rounded out with F. Scott Kenny on drums and, once again, Danny George Wilson subtly underpinning the chorus.
With Josephine, we finally have a more light-hearted tune; there’s only one war and one death (signified by funereal trumpets from The Dreaming Spires’ Joe Bennett). Oh, and some systematic racism. But, you know, apart from that, pretty cheery (for Hannah). Well…there’s dancing. It’s a signature historical story song so the Platt/Stevens dream team is back, and the result could easily grace a film soundtrack.
It’s a pretty compelling summary of Josephine Baker’s life from dancer, to Free Free France resistance fighter, to civil rights activist, to adoptive mother. All they’ve missed, really, is her habit of walking down the Champs-Élysées with a leopard, and the intriguing detail that her ‘rainbow tribe’ of 12 children from around the world were brought up in a castle and showcased at a purpose-built theme park.
Platt imbues a deep sense of nostalgia for a significant figure who, even after all her socio-historic importance, was primarily remembered as a performer: “Let us see you dance again/one last time to make us smile and keep our fears at bay/Josephine, you were the queen of Paris in your day.”
To Love You has a beautiful vocal, temporarily masking the distressing message it carries. The narrator sings to an errant lover who is increasingly lost to drink and substance abuse, and who is losing their shot at love: “every time you’d fall I would run to you/but this time I was crying so hard I missed my cue/’cause I’m just another drug to you.”
It gets deeper and darker as the narrator turns her words on herself. The imagery is vivid: “glaring back through the mirror at me/then the harsh light reveals/all the marks we’ve concealed/and the tears run in time down our cheek.”
The final line rings as the scene, and the emotional roller coaster of a record, ends on a striking moment of catharsis: “you deserve someone to love you.” The silence that follows that fundamental truth is deafening. Harrowing and hopeful, just like the album.
Letters Under Floorboards is a beautiful, heartbreaking and captivating record, an ambitious tour de force. Outstanding.
Letters Under Floorboards is out now on Continental Records Service.
Follow me for more reviews, news and photos!