Maz O' Connor
What I Wanted
Restless Head Records
It is such a self-descriptive and appropriate title!
After releasing three folkish albums during the last decade, Maz O'Connor decided that she needed a change of direction, she was another artist reassessing their work during lockdown and she found new inspirations, new sounds, new approaches to making music. 'What I Wanted' is the result of that journey, it's a brave album that exists beyond the edges of her previous comfort zone and it’s all the more engaging because of it.
That first taste of O'Connor's new material, the single 'Soho', is included here. Although the acoustic instruments were still there, they were weaved around a delicate electronic soundscape, textured pianos, and gentle percussion (courtesy of composer and arranger Will Gardner). A perfect setting for O' Connor's pure vocals and her lament for the slow eroding of all that was quirky, lovable, and independent of one of London's most celebrated corners.
'Soho' also introduces a theme that runs through the album, initially inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the tale of a spiritual journey is re-told with the city streets of London, O’Connor’s current home, as a backdrop. A narrator-persona who wanders the streets, often at night, telling of the characters she meets. As O’Connor expands “I was imagining that the London of this album is in some ways an allegory rather than a literal place. The narrator is searching not for another place but for a state of mind. Freedom, release, love, connection...the real stuff underneath all the corporate skyscrapers. She is looking for redemption or grace.”
O'Connor's thoughts about her Catholic upbringing and subsequent lapsed faith appear throughout the album. On 'Jessica' she recalls a close teenage friendship, memories that mix pleasure and pain ('Do you think we would have been in love, if we had been allowed, Jesus hates that kind of stuff ...'). It is a reminder of how simple and how complicated those times could be. Elsewhere, the character at the centre of the hypnotic ‘When It Comes For You’ appears to be getting a dressing down from the singer ('...how can I be with you?, you can't be with yourself'), but the song unfolds into a wider critique of modern living, consumerism ('do you ever get the feeling, they put a price on breathing?'), as well as new age spirituality and self medicating (‘you only miss me when you’re high, think I don’t know that?). The song appears to question what or how we fill the huge voids in our lives.
It is the title track that is the album's most astonishing moment. Quiet piano textures and a lonely, reflective voice An echoey lament, as startling as the quietly tender moments on Hannah Peel’s ‘Awake But Always Dreaming.’ ‘What I Wanted’ is a song that links so many of the album's themes together - the path not taken and regrets, the places we came from, the places we call home, and the beautiful disillusionment and joy of it all. It is quite breathtaking!
Listening to this album brings one of David Bowie’s finest pieces of advice to mind. He once observed that if an artist is feeling safe then ‘they’re not working in the right area' and that instead, they should go ‘...a little further into the water…a little out of your depth’ and that only then would they be in the ‘right place to do something exciting.’ This is exactly where Maz O’Connor is right now - creating something new, something unexpected but uniquely hers. Something very exciting indeed.