It’s not easy to reinvent yourself – just ask Brother Love, formerly known as B Love, formerly known as Diddy, formerly known as P Diddy, formerly known as Puffy, formerly known as Puff Daddy, formerly known as Sean Combs.
But you can see where the impulse comes from in musicians to rebrand and start again – especially if you’ve released nine excellent albums (and then some) over a 17-year stretch, and something as irrelevant as your surname has been an unfortunate distraction from them the entire time.
So it makes sense, following last year’s announcement on International Women’s Day that HALEY Bonar would be changing her legal name to HALEY McCallum – her mother’s maiden name – and her stage name to HALEY, that the musical output that followed should be correspondingly transformed.
It’s not as if those preceding nine albums were formulaic, either – HALEY’s back catalogue has seen her morph from sweet finger-picking folk on …The Size of Planets to spiky indie pop on Last War. It’s been a steady shift from self-consciousness to self-confidence, with 2016’s Impossible Dream a knowing and comfortable reflection on the transience of youth and a career that never quite hit the big time it was promised. It has, musically and lyrically, been a process of finding her voice. So it’s surprising that Pleasureland, her latest release, is an entirely instrumental album.
The squeaky synth-driven arpeggios in the opening track, "Credit Forever Part 1", re-emerge later, played expressively and fluidly on piano in part 2 in a wave-like ebb and flow that builds in urgency and travels through the octaves until it reaches its glorious sustained climax. Nestled beneath, a heavily reverbed electric guitar picks and scratches, adding just the right amount of conflicting texture to keep you on edge.
This push and pull between relaxation and tension typifies the whole record. The mellow, pulsing piano is a regular feature, but it’s always qualified by unexpected intrusions: a slide guitar that sounds like an air horn, distortion so intense you can’t hear anything else, an almost imperceptibly low but menacing propeller-like synth. So just as you’re giving yourself up to a melody, you’re jolted out of it by something unfamiliar, more intriguing than unwelcome.
"Pig Latin" features Mike Lewis’s breathy, indistinct saxophone line sitting atop a less structured but no less beautiful piano accompaniment, demonstrating McCullum’s effortless way with a melody. Conversely, "Infinite Pleasure Part 2", the album’s first release, is all hazy electric guitar so warped and crackly it borders on discomfort. It’s at moments like these that you long to be rooted in a story arc; without a verbal narrative, the erratic movement from classical, rhythmic piano to totally unstructured electric guitar can be disorienting.
"Next Time (For C)" and final track "Snake Moon" are two of the purest and most moving pieces on the album. The former features a happily plodding piano accompaniment to violin and cello, interspersed with short, fragmented samples of a woman talking to a child. The two string instruments interact like family members – the young violin dares to dance and explore, while the cello grounds it with depth and maturity. The latter is a beautiful closer: it reeks of French romanticism, all yearning and enough moments of joy to keep you listening, and hopeful.
So why this, and why now? Perhaps it’s confession fatigue – feeling done with 17 years of intimate sharing. Or perhaps it’s just that, at some point, you feel comfortable letting the sounds do the talking for you, and you get your musical kicks crafting melodies, experimenting with instruments and time signatures, fusing analogue and digital. Although the accompanying pack states that this album is ‘for the listener’s pleasure alone’, there is palpable pleasure — for both McCallum and her listeners — as she shrugs off her old identity and, in losing her voice, goes in search of herself.