There’s a song on Aoife Nessa Frances’ debut album Land of No Junction called “Heartbreak”. Can you think of a more familiar songwriting cliché? This planet probably averages six or seven new compositions about crushed romances every minute and most struggle to tell us anything new about the fragility of our human feelings. But every broken heart splinters into different shapes and the best songwriters can investigate their tragic love affairs with an emotional precision that makes them worth hearing.
What of this Dubliner’s sorrow then? “I’ve been thinking about what you mean to me,” sings Frances on “Heartbreak” before going on to be consumed by the details of shared experiences with who I assume is a former love. And when the 28-year-old Sallynoggin native desperately repeats “Heartbreak for nothing” on the chorus, she hits an emotional apogee. The song has reached its musical crescendo, but Frances’ gentle touch is what makes it so thrilling.
There’s a warm familiarity to Land of No Junction. Frances is an expert at depicting subtle emotions in relatable ways. Helping her cause is the simplicity of the melodies, lilting and pleasant, and the uncomplicated arrangements, which are generally made up of a handful of instruments: often an acoustic guitar, bass, keys, the occasionally splash of strings and various forms of percussion, including what sounds like hands striking a wooden surface and an antique drum machine. If a good new song is one you think you’ve heard before, then these cuts already feel as classic as a knitted jumper.
This familiarity never leads to cliché. As forlorn as it is beautiful, Land of No Junction is an album for long, quiet drives. Co-produced by Cian Nugent, the hazy compositions are perfect for leaning back in your seat as the open road opens up in front of you.
Then there is Frances’ voice – gothic and atmospheric, it hangs heavy in the mix, locking you into the songs with just the artist for company. And while it’s fair to say the album wouldn’t have suffered if the 95-second minimalist instrumental number “A Long Dress” had been cut (had it been shifted one place down in the track list you could have argued it was a halftime break, but never mind), what’s left is eight different songs for eight different moods. The first great Irish album of the 2020s.
Before embarking on a solo venture, Frances lined up alongside Liam Mesbur as part of the duo Princess. The group has since splintered, but you can still check out some of their recordings from 2013–15 on Bandcamp. “Molly” is particularly interesting as it’s a clear example of Frances’ style formulating. The guitars are drenched in reverb, the pace is slow, the tone is stifling, and Frances’ voice is cavernous.
Now we have Land of No Junction. To describe it to newcomers with brevity, this is a well-executed indie folk album with easily identifiable shades of Kinfauns-era Beatles (“Less Is More” features some of the same DNA as “Julia”) and the acoustic ideas of Sea Change-era Beck. If you’re looking for more touchpoints, the guitar licks on “Heartbreak” join the dots between George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and 1990s alt-country, while the rainy-day atmosphere of “In the End” recalls veteran English indie band The Clientele.
It’s Frances’ performance that elevates the album above simple retro parroting. The writing feels personal while offering fresh perspectives. (It was written “through a process of free thought” according to the press notes, whatever that means.) “Blow Up” is about womanhood and dates back to Frances’ college days. On the excellent “Here in the Dark”, she ponders how trivial arguments between lovers can be, admitting that the hours after a heated clash can lead to second thoughts on what was said and who was right.
The best song might well be the title track. The basic plucked guitar riff on which the song is built is not dissimilar to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. From there, Frances delves into escapism: “Take me to the land of no junction/ Before it fades away,” she croons, “Where the roads can never cross/ But go their own way.” Positioned as the album’s closer, it puts a button on this intimate set. It’s rare and special for a debut album to feel so effortless yet so complete.
Land of No Junction is out now via Basin Rock records. Aoife Nessa Frances plays the Grand Social on 21 February.
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