Birthdays, the sophomore outing from English singer/songwriter Keaton Henson, finds the terminally heartbroken Londoner updating the lo-fi bedroom din of his 2010 debut Dear... in favor of a more lush and expansive, though no less brooding, patina of ruin. Like Dear..., which took all of the most intimate, uncomfortable, and painful bits of Henson's love life and set them against a minimalist, guitar-picked backdrop that sounded like a cross between Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago and demos for Jeff Buckley's Grace, Birthdays is so fragile and broken that listening to it without signing some kind of non-disclosure agreement feels borderline voyeuristic. Henson's voice, a nervy and pained yet melodious wail that blends the sinister affectations of Alt-J's Joe Newman and the feral croon of the aforementioned Buckley with the monastic weight of Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons), is able to spit out a lyric like "If you must die sweetheart/Die knowing your life was my life's best part" ("You") without the slightest bit of irony. Such candor can be a bit disarming, especially on the album's front half, which rarely deviates from the guitar/voice/ambient keyboard foundation established on the pensive opener "Teach Me," but songs like "Kronos," with its jarring, distorted guitars and ocean of ride cymbals, and the spooky banjo-driven "Beekeeper," which finds Henson deadpanning "You all say I've crossed the line but the sad fact is I've lost my mind," at least flirt with different sonic aspects of the tortured singer/songwriter mythology. ~ James Christopher Monger, Rovi

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