It’s no secret that Galway-born Laura Sheeran is the cousin of an identically surnamed famous pop act. It is totally irrelevant, however, so forget you ever acquired that knowledge (especially if only a sentence ago). What the world has – and does not yet widely know – in Laura Sheeran is an artist of impressively chameleonic talent. Her first break came in 2002 when Clodagh Simonds of 1970s cult act Mellow Candle reinvented herself as leader of experimental collective Fovea Hex and recruited Laura, then just 15 years old, as one of its core members. To give you some idea of the professionalism involved, the band’s first EP featured the Eno brothers Brian and Roger, and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp chipped in with the third. Then there was the not insignificant matter of a personal invite from David Lynch to play at an exhibition of his at The Cartier Foundation in Paris. All in all, not too shabby for Laura.
Having been exposed to this extraordinary wealth of expertise, it’s little wonder that Sheeran became fascinated with the intricacies of the recording process and began to experiment on her own – writing, arranging, recording and producing nearly everything herself. A small amount of appreciative press greeted her first two solo EPs, followed in 2011 by a double album, another EP, and a 35-minute performance soundtrack for Dublin-based aerial acrobats PaperDolls. She also launched the synth-based duo Nanu Nanu with her fiancé Marc Aubele and waged a campaign against the questionable ethics of pay-to-play promoters. That she lost her mother to cancer last summer and still managed to achieve all this suggests she may in fact be superhuman.
That’s a lot of background information to digest, but it’s necessary in the context of What The World Knows to understand where Sheeran is coming from, beyond her blood relation. Whereas her previous album was formed of two distinct bodies of work – Lust Of Pig, with its murky, creeping electronics, and The Fresh Blood, a more organic collection that borrowed its intricate layers from shadowy folk and unholy ambient textures – What The World Knows is more of a piece. The instrumental palette has been dramatically stripped down so that only ribbons of cello and harp stream through the cracks in Aubele’s shifting landscapes of Moog and Doepfer synths. The absence of real drums emphasises the album’s more synthetic feel without stunting its theatrics, and Sheeran’s sometimes melodramatic lyrics – more instantly relatable this time around – are not lost amid the crunch and clatter.
As different as they are, the singles ‘Forever Love’ (potentially a killer R’n'B song in another, more upbeat life) and ‘Live Long’ (an unsettlingly sweet/sour, almost taunting, ode to survival) don’t quite prepare you for the petulance and agitation of the opening duo, ‘What The World Knows’ and ‘REDLIGHT’; this girl knows how to make an entrance. Yet even when the latter ratchets up the intensity with a multi-tracked, nightmarish chant (“Please say stop. Please say stop.”), there’s a satisfying minimalism at work. Sheeran’s is not the most individual of voices but she applies it deftly to create an air of mystery on her more abstract songs like ‘Until Danger’s Gone’, where it dips chillingly low to mirror the fall of the cello, and ‘Into The Fire’, where it stalks and flickers like a painful memory.
The shadow cast by the passing of Laura’s mother is most keenly sensed on ‘Death Of A Star’, which combines a repeated organ motif with crisp, irregular beats and Sheeran’s tender elegy (“Life was a game and it claimed you/I felt alive till it came for you”) to moving effect, and the song’s abrupt end feels weighty and significant. Sheeran’s skill as an arranger provides What The World Knows with several standout moments. The interplay of harp and the metallic twang of synthesised harpsichord on ‘Hurricane’, which gives the song a stirringly exotic flavour, is perhaps rivalled only by the horror-movie chimes that drill suspense into the heart of ‘Live Long’. Forget Laura Mars; view the world through the eyes of Laura Sheeran and, with a bit of persistence, you might discover some secrets worth sharing.