Album review: Holly Miranda – ‘The Magician’s Private Library’ (XL)

Sitek-assisted triumph with songs as odd as her back story

There’s a rare neurological condition called synaesthesia, in which senses are jumbled in the brain, so the sound of words are perceived as tastes, or music as colours. With her first solo album, Holly Miranda has managed to pull off a similar sort of psychic trickery: listening to this record feels like leafing through a box of old photographs. It’s
a beautiful, unnerving experience that rattles on long after its final notes fade.

Little wonder it’s so mesmerising, given the places it comes from. The now-Brooklyn-based singer grew up in
a devoutly religious family between Detroit and Tennessee, raised on a strict diet of church, church and more church. When Miranda realised she was “really gay”, so the story goes, she did a runner to New York, where she dodged a villainous record deal, formed a band called The Jealous Girlfriends and made friends with TVOTR’s Dave Sitek, who was so taken with her eerie, lilting voice that he produced ‘The Magician’s Private Library’ before there was a hint of a record deal anywhere near it.

Sitek’s role is an important one. His trademark woozy layers had the effect of shrinking [a]Scarlett Johansson[/a]’s vocals to nothing. But here, Miranda’s arresting falsetto slices through the noise, lending the dramatic strings, bells and horns the feel of an old film score, a soundtrack to a 1930s heroine in peril. ‘Joints’, the album’s finest moment, repeats its malevolent mantra of heartache (“It aches and creaks and there’s no point in growing old”) until it’s unbearable, while the equally stirring ‘Waves’ offers a consolatory nod to hope among the “needless pain that stains your face”.

Perversely, it’s the songs offering a musical respite from the sadness that don’t hold up in quite the same way. ‘Forest Green Oh Forest Green’ is a misleading intro, a touch twee where the rest is not, and on occasion the haze chokes like strong perfume. But it’s all rounded off with strength and simplicity by the last song, ‘Sleep On Fire’, which gallops away to a happier place with the promise of greater things to come. Apparently, the album’s title refers to how Miranda’s schizophrenic uncle once described [a]Pink Floyd[/a]’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’. This hypnotic debut suggests she might just be something of a sorcerer herself.

Rebecca Nicholson

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Click here to get your copy of Holly Miranda’s ‘The Magician’s Private Library’ from the Rough Trade shop.