Keaton Henson’s latest release, ‘House Party’, is, if not a concept album, one with a strong narrative and lyrical thread. It is written from the perspective of a successful performer who has hollowed himself out in pursuit of fame. This alternate universe version of Henson, portrayed in the pink suit modelled on the album’s sleeve, is suffering from depression yet is only able to express it through the language of pop songs. 

Henson is blessed with a voice that on occasions recalls Perfume Genius and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, what could be described as insular soul, a style that avoids grandstanding but has an inner intensity. Musically, ‘House Party’ takes it cue from latter day Teenage Fan Club, together with a sprinkling of inspiration from Big Star, The Replacements and early 70s singer-songwriters. Many of these influences are apparent on the opening ‘I’m Not There’ with its upbeat jangly guitar and breezy air, aching voice and revelation of a dark underbelly (“ask me how I am / I’ll say I’m fine / but we both know I’m full of shit”) and brief wonky guitar solo. 

‘Rain in my Favourite House’ is one of many hushed songs in a minor key on ‘House Party’, putting forward the idea that music is the only place where you can feel fully at home and even that is far from guaranteed. ‘Envy’ pairs gleaming guitar with tales of losing all his teeth and contemplating “same chords new guitar / write down who you are / same shit different day”, the downbeat piano coda matching the lyrical mood.

‘The Meeting Place’ aims retrospectively for a place on the soundtrack to ’10 Things I Hate About You’ and has lovely bright guitars with a bleak undertow. ‘Two Bad Teeth’ is a tale of dysfunctional relationships where both parties tear each other apart (“If I take you on holiday babe / will you remind me not to have fun”) rendered beautifully and delicately. With its understated guitar accompaniment, it is a highlight of ‘House Party’.

‘Stay’ is inspired by FM radio staples in which the narrator implores the object of their affection not to leave. The song stands out for its glorious piano lines and southern soul style soft horns, while ‘Late to You’ offers further evidence of how Henson is most suited to the quietest songs where the heartbreak is audible, its apology backed by gentle finger-picking guitar and murmuring strings.

‘Parking Lot’ is more up-tempo in pace and mood, Henson’s vocals sounding appealingly adenoidal as he comes close to healing and proclaims almost joyously “If we have us/ then who the fuck / could come and take it all away”. By ‘Holiday’, the narrator is back in a troubled state (“I’m a tough guy you know / can’t you tell by my skin… I’m a weirdo you see… I must be sick in the head”).

‘The Mine’ spends most of its duration in hushed tones before a discordant edge creeps in. It is a song that is not going to beg for attention but thoroughly warrants it. The character is too busy writing about relationships to experience them (“I etched my own name in the mountain /But I lost all my nails to the fight/If you will let me explain/I have aged and I’m frightened/By the sound of my thoughts in the night”).  There is a yin and yang battle going on as he both wearily acknowledges and celebrates, “Writing love songs to people I ignored / I looked for love in strangers / I am safe, I am fine, I’m adored”. 

In contrast, ‘Hooray’ has guitars at their sunniest and most kaleidoscopic while Henson is being told he is a fraud and claiming that life is great while you are misunderstood. Fittingly, ‘House Party’ ends on the slow phone/lighters in the air festival anthem, ‘Hide Those Feelings’, where the narrator’s “self-doubt keeps me warm in my bed”.

Ultimately, although ‘House Party’ is a highly meta album that could easily trip over its own cleverness, it is also a very emotional and engaging record. 

Keaton Henson: House Party – Out 9th June 2023 (Play It Again Sam)

Video: Keaton Henson – Late To You

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.