Toronto singer-songwriter Ansley Simpson's first release, Breakwall, is a stunning debut from an already accomplished artist.
It's rare to witness an artist emerge fully formed, but with Breakwall, Simpson offers the good stuff right out of the gate. Her fine guitar work and heartrending vocal performances anchor the sweeping production by James Bunton. The pain and experience of these songs are driven into the soul by Simpson's voice, which glides from soothing to searing in a single line.
As strong as the lyrics and music are, though, it's Simpson's voice that really shakes things up. With a subtle vibrato and an impressive range, Simpson grabs the listener from the first notes and doesn't let go. Breakwall breaks the heart and mends it. The album's centrepiece, "Kwe (Woman Changing into Thunderbird)," was inspired by Norval Morrisseau's series of paintings depicting the artist's transformation from man into Manitou. In "Kwe," and with the album itself, Simpson offers a similar transformation, presenting a progression of being "sore," to being "sorry," to soaring in the song's climax. It is more than homophonic wordplay; it's a demonstration of psychic healing.
Through acknowledging pain, the narrator rises above her circumstances and carries the listener with her. The title song from Breakwall cannot be shaken. With a simple yet uniquely modified chord progression and a melody nestled in a comfortable, well-traveled pocket, the song is guaranteed to resonate.
Simpson should be applauded for the brave choice of bookending the album with pieces sung a cappella, too. The choice establishes the album as a poetic work as much as a musical one. The album's second last piece, "The Burnt Lands," is another standout tune in an album of standout tunes. This song shakes the listener to the core. It's better heard than read about, and best listened to through headphones beneath a starry sky, if it can be arranged.
Themes of transformation, triumph over pain, recovery and strength add to Breakwall's emotional punch. It is a jarring album that soothes and startles. One of Simpson's strengths as a writer is the ability to reveal seemingly personal lyrics in such a way that conceals the writer's life and provides a shared space for the listener to witness and participate in hard-won triumphs. Like the best poetry, her writing fuses disparate imagery and points to transcendent realities beyond the literal. It's enough to bring a music journalist out of retirement. (Independent, ansleysimpson1.bandcamp.com)
Mark D. Dunn (Independent)