Written for Wears the Trousers.
You might recognise Sukie Smith from various acting roles, but her background on the small screen has little bearing on the widescreen feel of her current musical project. Madam are a six-piece band fronted and produced by Smith, and this is their second release after 2008’s In Case of Emergency. Smith is an accomplished composer who provided the music to the 2007 thriller Hush Your Mouth, and much of this album has the air of a similar kind of film score. The album’s title is indicative of its overall atmosphere: it brims with clandestine deeds done under cover of darkness, cryptic confessions, and regretful departures pre-sunrise.
There’s a hunted and haunted quality to much of Gone Before Morning, a preoccupation with deception, delusion, and decay. ‘The Ground Will Claim You’ sets the pace for much of what follows: the guitar striking harsh blows before fading into an ominous spiral of prickly strings. Its lyrics introduce the album’s insistent fear of solitude and stasis, the compulsion to move on and keep one step ahead of past mistakes encapsulated here in the line “I’m on the run, just like everyone”. Many songs express a related tension between a calm surface of dazed or determined insistence on acceptance, and an inner churned-up turmoil of feelings repressed or denied. ‘Someone in Love’ is delivered in the tightly-pinched tones of someone straining to control the pent-up emotion hinted at in the impatient, jittery backbeat. ‘If You’re Looking for A Way Out’, at first placidly though piteously resigned to the end of a relationship, finally erupts into frantic pleas of “stop pretending” that might be directed at the song’s addressee or at the narrator herself.
These melodramas in miniature are surprisingly absorbing, and Smith strings them out over an equally evocative soundscape constructed from lush and shadowy textures and found sounds – metallic scrapes and clattering, disjointed phone conversations, even the rattle of subway trains. Opening track ‘You Lead I Follow’ is pitched on seesawing strings, ‘Weekend Love’ is a tale of snatched moments sparsely told over blowsy, bluesy trip-hop, and the closing ‘Rider of the Waves’ sees Smith submerge herself in a sinister sonic encirclement. ‘The Snake’, sly and jazzy, has a nagging refrain that you’ll repeatedly find yourself humming without being able to remember where you heard it.
Smith’s voice, although not strong, is still compelling – a voice with an ache in it. Her vocals occasionally bring to mind Cerys Matthews’ countrified croak, or, on the velvety retrospective ‘Tar and Serpents’, the glacially mournful intonation of Nico. The strongest point of comparison might be later Marianne Faithfull’s tones of cracked crystal circa Broken English. It’s a voice that could easily lend itself to the bland soul stylings of Dido or Tracey Thorn, but Gone Before Morning edges instead towards the unsettling atmospherics employed by Rasputina or even the Dresden Dolls. It’s still dinner party music, but there’s the definite threat or promise that your hostess has slipped something interesting into the Sauvignon.