Anna Calvi reinterprets and improves her own work on Hunted, stripping away excess and filling the spaces with a talented roster of guest singers. The new recordings of seven previously released songs offer deeper insight and more complex emotional expression.
Why revisit? Once an album has been put to (digital) tape, why can some artists leave it while others obsessively pick at it? Certainly there are perfectionists, and certainly they are facilitated by the internet to continually recontextualize their work, but there are real artistic reasons as well. Anna Calvi’s Hunted is a perfect example of the latter. It’s a reexamination of her 2018 album Hunter, and the stark contrast between the two is evident immediately, even from the album covers.
The photos could be from the same session, capturing Calvi in a disheveled closeup. But where Hunter displays her in profile, chin raised in triumph, Hunted sees her making eye contact with the camera, which is angled to reveal the glass separating us from her. The breath fogging the glass, the makeup smeared on her cheek, and the veins in her eyes all call out to the title of the album – the hunter has become the hunted.
Musically, there are two drastic changes that separate these albums. The first is the near complete lack of drums. “Hunter” replaces its poppy, delayed bass and drum beat with a subtle, lo-fi drum machine, barely audible over the delicately overpowering guitar line. The final chorus of “Nothing Lasts” loses its triumphant anthemic qualities and sounds suddenly mournful. The other six songs don’t include drums at all.
The second major change is the inclusion of an incredible collection of collaborators. From Julia Holter and Charlotte Gainsbourg to Courtney Barnett and IDLES, the guest performances provide layers of nuance and clarity to the old songs. The most striking of these is from IDLES‘ Joe Talbot on the stunning reimagining of “Wish”. It’s clear that Talbot was invited to the track to be himself – he channels the same magnetic blend of sarcastic cool, intimate desperation, and explosive passion that makes IDLES such an unforgettable band. However, in the second verse, Calvi’s voice awakens in the mix, and throughout the next verse and chorus, it slowly starts to overpower Talbot. By the bridge, his voice is pulled back, and she crescendos to an overwhelming, operatic climax, finally channeling Talbot himself as she lets go and screams.
Another perfect collaboration takes place on “Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy”, which enlists Courtney Barnett’s deadpan Australian drawl for the riotously affirming chorus. On the original recording, this song played more triumphantly, as Calvi celebrated her critique of gender roles, but with Barnett, it feels more grounded in the real implications of that construct. It presents a new reason to revisit old material – the artist reevaluates her work because she has grown and become wiser. She recognizes that it is not enough to celebrate freedom from a gendered reality, because the power structures built into gender are not made equitable by celebration alone. It can be no mistake that the order of the tracks has changed for Hunted, so that the nearly melancholy end of “Don’t Beat The Girl Out of My Boy” is followed immediately by Talbot’s reevaluation of “Wish”. Talbot’s most recent album with IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance, offers its own critique of patriarchy and gender, and should be required listening as well. That album and “Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy” circle around the damage that patriarchy does to everyone, and the final lyrics – ‘I shout out / Let us, be us’ – is not so much a shout as a calm affirmation.
Hunted ends with a powerful reflection on the role of guitar and vocals in rock music. The fuzzy riff on “Indies or Paradise” wouldn’t be out of place on a Foo Fighters album, and the vocals reel from Calvi’s signature operatic wail to a menacing, seductive whisper, and finally to a wild shriek. The range of both instruments is accentuated by the continued absence of drums. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard such a heavy riff entirely without drums, and the effect is disconcerting and compelling. The final, explosive build up is suddenly cut off by the a capella ‘I want’. Where a lesser songwriter might have finally relented with a resolving drum crash, Calvi ends the album, leaving the listener at the edge of their seat. It’s a powerful decision, and a much more satisfying conclusion than the ballad that concludes the original record.
Anna Calvi is certainly an accomplished singer and guitarist, unique in her vocal capacity and her eclectic blend of styles, but Hunted is a real artistic step forward even for her. The minimalist production, almost entirely centered around voice and guitar, offers a deeply thoughtful exploration of the power and potential of those instruments. Each guest offers further insight, imbuing Calvi’s work with their own emotive performances. This type of reevaluation doesn’t pay off for every artist, but for Calvi, it develops and improves her work in every way.