“I’ve been dreaming of better times,” sings Aoife Nessa Frances on “Here In The Dark”; a standard response to the vicissitudes of the universe as the world tiptoes into 2020, wary of the ground disintegrating under its feet. However, faced with chronic uncertainty, the Dubliner’s debut album offers a radical alternative to troubling reality: a determined retreat into fuzzy, blanket-warm abstraction. “Moonlight over me,” the 28-year-old sings in woozy reverie on its meandering title track. “Leave me with this dream and wake me after dark.” Close your eyes, in other words, and all the bad things really do go away.
More linear, coherent records will be released this year, but with its half-submerged psychedelic landscapes, and dark, shadowy lyrics, Land Of No Junction may offer a more lasting challenge than any of them. Those familiar with Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, the Broadcast records or the closing bars of Pink Floyd’s “Jugband Blues” will recognise some of its component parts – echoey electric guitars, Mellotrons, the occasional bongo – but Land Of No Junction is so determinedly inward-focused that it struggles to sound like anything but itself.
From a bohemian background – mother an actor, father a fiddle maker – Frances was unable to pursue her first calling as a flamenco guitarist, drifting towards folk and psychedelia while playing in bands as a teenager (recorded evidence of her previous vehicle, experimental rock band Princess, still exists on the internet). Her collaborator and co-producer, Ryley Walker associate Cian Nugent, gave her moral support and practical guidance as she hacked her debut album together piecemeal over the last two years, and accidentally supplied its central premise too.
Nugent was talking about a childhood holiday in Wales, and Frances misheard Llandudno Junction as the more expansive Land Of No Junction. That nebulous Neverland became increasingly compelling as Frances began to put these songs to tape. The land of no junction was, she says, “a dark vast landscape to visit in dreams… A place of waiting where I could sit with uncertainty and accept it, rejecting the distinct and welcoming the uncertain and the unknown.”
The pitter-patter of synthesised drums provides the gateway into this mysterious realm, opening track “Geranium” coming across like scribblings from a Jungian therapist’s notebook. “A light in an empty room, opens call through your chest,” sings Frances, forever somewhere between blissed out and possessed. “You can enter through a trapdoor.”
A hypnotic combination of clip-clop rhythms and Nugent’s snaking, Richard Thompson-like guitar lines wind around Frances’ portal into the subconscious. She tells Uncut that her many of her lyrics start out as nonsense words, phatic chatter, congealing into something more coherent as her songs take shape, but “Geranium” is a sign that her mission is not to be understood; the words tumble out, the images flash by, everything and nothing is revealed.
However, if they lack hard edges, Frances’ depictions of inner states remain compelling for their vagueness. “Here In The Dark” is typically light on detail, but depicts the transcendental joy of sleep with a Judee Sill-ish twinkle. A stately, Mellotron-lit voyage into unconscious space, it finds Frances eagerly pushing open a door into this other world where the rules of earthly engagement no longer apply (“eyes closed it’s something else,” she sings with a tinge of rapture). It also comes with a luminous instrumental coda, titled “A Long Dress”. A two-note rhapsody, it firms up the links between Land Of No Junction and Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom; the former Soft Machine drummer’s surrealist response to the 1973 accident that confined him permanently to a wheelchair. Both records have a twilit otherworldliness, and a similar conception of the inner world as a widescreen alternative to shrunken circumstances.
The daytime world Frances depicts is certainly one filled with compromises and disappointments. “The Girl From Ipanema” with a weird metallic aftertaste, “Blow Up” is a consideration of female vulnerability that dates back to before the Republic Of Ireland voted to legalise abortion in 2018, a time when women could find themselves left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. As she puts it: “Scared of the tide, no-one but you can swim.” Her response to this injustice is not rage, though, but weary resignation: a despair that battles of the sexes ever needed to be fought. “Tired of being human,” she sings. That existential gloom also swirls around the lugubrious “Less Is More”. Her most explicit homage to 1990s experimentalists Broadcast, it finds Frances (who worked as a PA in the film industry to fund the recording of the album) bridling against the strictures of nine-to-five normality, resentfully shrinking to fit the tiny space laid out for her (“talk not shout,” she mutters, a little reminder to keep her voice and her expectations low).
However, if the waking world tends to be a slightly washed-out disappointment, then the relatively sprightly “Libra” – a close cousin of The Notorious Byrd Brothers – at least offers hope of something better to come, Frances’ CTRL+ALT+DELETE refrain of “all of our answers have disappeared” a disorientating shock to the system and a thrilling challenge to restart from scratch.
However, Land Of No Junction isn’t really a record that yearns to fight for a brighter tomorrow, Frances’ questing more than anything else for the freedom to explore her own private Narnia in peace. The chiming “In The End” stalks back into the middle of the night for another dose of the delicious dark stuff, and while it suggests a belief in the redemptive power of love “that will transcend in the end”, starry fantasy beats flesh and blood every time. “I’m passing through the window and not the door,” she murmurs, space (outer or inner) very much her place.
Her natural pull towards the unreal, the insubstantial, might explain why the Angel Olsen-ish “Heartbreak” – the most conventionally structured “song” on Land Of No Junction – rings slightly false. The languid title track states her deliberately ill-defined case much more clearly. A loose tangle of Syd Barrett guitar infused with a touch of Broadway schmaltz, it finds Frances woken in the middle of the night by some dazzling vision, and waiting “breathless, restless” to fade back into uncomplicated oblivion again. “Take me to the land of no junction before it fades away,” she sighs. “Where the roads can never cross but go their own way.”
A place of quiet certainty – no choices; endless possibilities – it’s a compelling landscape to ponder in a treacherous age, though where all those lonely roads lead is another matter. As a kind of millennial Astral Weeks, Land Of No Junction feels like a complete statement, and Frances’ plans seemed fairly sketchy when Uncut asked her to consider her next move: “I’m looking forward to writing more music and finishing it and getting to record it again and maybe doing it a little faster this time.”
Fine detail, however, is not her thing, Land Of No Junction veering determinedly toward the vague as it searches for comfort from somewhere within. Call it a quiet protest against reality; a one-woman bed-in. One way and another, it works like a dream.