Critics are always quick to spot a “sophomore slump”, but less noted is its more thrilling flipside: the sophomore surge, where an artist comes out punching against the pressure to follow a fêted debut.
For her second album, Anna Calvi isn’t about to throw the fight. Calvi’s 2011 first effort swooned and sizzled in the flamenco-goth flicker of her carnal guitars and operatically elastic vocals, yet it sounds tentative next to the follow-up’s vaulting display of range and drama.
One Breath draws on choppy emotions – grief, depression, anxiety – but Calvi commands the tides with the imperious authority of Barbara Stanwyck leading her posse in Sam Fuller's wild western Forty Guns.
“Darkness grows,” she croons as “Suddenly” rumbles with portent, before hoisting herself above the depths on a chorus made for “widescreen” metaphors. Horizon-wide emotional sweep established, Calvi nails some killer mood shifts. “Eliza” gallops like 1960s Scott Walker, while “Piece by Piece” whispers hushed confidences over broken beats and celestial electronics.
“Sing to Me” resembles a lost Goldfrapp dream-song resurrected with gentle guitar strokes, “Tristan” the aggressively strummed overture to a bloody bullfight.
The dynamism is breathtaking, especially when the lulling “One Breath” segues into “Love of My Life”, a storm of guitar skronk and lusty vocals with a chorus so potent, even Calvi’s giddy “Oh-oh” sounds startled and a little thrilled by its force. Doubts and demons are notably absent on the hymnal closer, “The Bridge”: stunned into silence, surely, by a sophomore smack-down of grand, fearless ambition.