Music often comes from a deep place, and in the case of Hannah Cohen’s stunning and heartrending second album, it’s very deep indeed. Mainly inspired by a painful break-up and the anxieties that loss can trigger, Pleasure Boy cushions its sadness in an exquisitely nuanced soundscape of aching melancholy and lush melody where Hannah’s vocal conveys all the different shades of heartbreak. Following the album’s completion, she’s survived the calamity and found a new level of happiness, but to paraphrase the classic Sixties hit, there will always be something there to remind her with Pleasure Boy.
‘Pleasure Boy’, like her debut ‘Child Bride’, was produced by Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, whose work with artists such as The National, Antony Hegarty, David Byrne and Nico Muhly singles him out as one of America’s current finest producers and collaborators, though he’s also a talented pianist. The dynamics of ‘Pleasure Boy’ was the result of Hannah and Bartlett, “bunkering down with my songs, experimenting with different tones and sounds, and layering them. My first record was so airy and roomy, I didn’t have patience for that again, I wanted more movement, something more mysterious and witchier, so we created this sound wall together.”
Embellishing the sound are Ray Rizzo (drums), Josh Kaufman (bass), Doug Weiselman (horns) and Doveman (keys). Hannah mostly wrote the album on guitar (except ‘Watching You Fall’ on autoharp and ‘I’ll Fake It’ on omnichord), though the album’s only guitar features on ‘Baby’. “Over the last two years, it’s all been super-shoegazey stuff, we just went the other way,” she says. ‘Queen Of Ice’ features a saxophone spiralling like a ghost through the haunting, suspenseful mood and emotional fall-out (“Stone, ooh you're made of stone / trace you fingers down my spine / watch me crumble before your eyes”). ‘Just Take The Rest’, the album’s lead single, has a Sixties Ye Ye pop feel, while the album’s other uptempo cut ‘I’ll Fake It’ is more new wave-meets-cold-wave. “I wanted the music to hurt, to have a visceral effect,” Hannah says. Her voice sometimes sounds delirious or icy; other times she recalls the vulnerable, piercing beauty of Harriet Wheeler (The Sundays) and Karen Peris (The Innocence Mission); heady company indeed.
But Pleasure Boy‘s sound wouldn’t exist without the vision that launched it. The album title arrived as the record took shape. “Pleasure Boy is a character of who it’s about, someone who represents gluttony and decadence and richness,” Hannah explains. She admits it was a tough record to make, given she was aiming to heal emotionally while feeling “devastated and hurt. But it wouldn’t be the record it is if I hadn’t done that.”
There are various facets to a break-up - from “worrying about someone not being good to themselves” (‘Watching You Fall’) to her lover, “being in love with someone else, but still keeping me around” (‘Keepsake’). But there’s also room on Pleasure Boy for other loves and lives, such as the elderly and dear family friend in ‘Clairemont’ who Hannah got to spend a precious day with before he died. “It’s a song about love, and people close to me, about being weak in front of someone and being OK with that… It all came together on that song.”
Pleasure Boy’s lyrics are predominantly direct and clear but even when ‘Lilacs’ delves into imagery (“No lies in this here city / Only lilacs and promises from the wind / the sun won't rise for you my pretty / it only burns with the memories of your sins”), its intentions are clear. “For me, ‘Lilacs’ exists in this dreamworld,” she says. “It was the first song we tracked for this album, which set the path we wanted to follow. I wanted the mood of something that just takes over, some sort of apocalyptic alien folk song, like it was the end of the world.”
Live, Hannah’s former stage presence - “the sad girl hovering over her guitar” as she puts it - has been retired. She’ll be proudly out front next time round, a proper chanteuse with a band, and her next musical venture might even be an “electro-pop-disco-funk,” excursion. In other words, she has already moved on from the experience of creating Pleasure Boy. The memory might still linger, but the album is not just a heavenly pleasure, but an earthly exorcism.