Alongside albums from King Princess and Billie Eilish, Blood, the first full-length offering from Kelsey Lu, has undoubtedly been one of 2019’s most eagerly anticipated debut drops. The North Carolina-born singing, song-writing, cello playing avant-pop enigma has woven together a strikingly beautiful album that’s fraught with turmoil and nourishing for the soul.
XL Recordings exec and xx-collaborator Rodaidh McDonald has been enlisted as Lu’s co-conspirator for Blood, with Adrian Younge producing the record, while Jamie xx (“Why Knock for You” and “Foreign Car”) and Skrillex (“Due West”) contribute additional production with their instantly recognizable respective sounds. McDonald and company are all here to flesh out Lu’s previously barebones sound, and they do a solid job of adding layers to her crystal clear vision. Meanwhile, photographer Tyler Mitchell (aka the first black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue) shot the album cover.
Blood is the sound of an untameable free spirit flexing their wings. The daughter of two devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lu broke away from the stifling religious beliefs of her parents, briefly finding refuge at the North Carolina School for the Arts before dropping out to explore her musicality on her own terms. Lu began playing with local groups, like hip-hop collective Nappy Roots, before relocating to New York and eventually moving onto her current home, Los Angeles.
It was in New York that Lu would record her pastoral debut EP Church, a live, one-take recording laid down at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn. Having previously collaborated with Blood Orange, Wet, Florence + The Machine and even Solange on an interlude for A Seat at the Table, the Church EP introduced Lu as solo artist in bloom.
Her bohemian spirit runs through the veins of her debut album, and the result is a full-blooded testament to the life of an artist that chooses not to shave her armpits and rejoices in talking about dreaming she has a penis in interviews. Blood is an album distilled with wisdom beyond her 25 years, that Lu herself describes as: “a recognition of the Pain, the Horror and the Beauty of finding the ability to observe it all in order to move through it.”
Mournful album opener “Rebel” is instantly enchanting, a haunting and uneasy ghost train of a track on which Lu weaves a unique depth of sound and feeling that’s delicately balanced with a freshness and lightness of touch (a mood that runs throughout the album). Lu paints vivid landscapes in her music – you can practically feel the warm breezes and dewy mornings in these songs, while actual birdsong samples flutter across “Kindred I” and “Kindred II.”
At times Blood veers into the theatrical, but there’s a freshness evident in every turn of phrase that Lu delivers that always pulls it back – whether it’s the attitude infused middle-8 that cuts through the languid verses on “Pushin Against the Wind” or the unbridled abandon of previous single “Due West.” Lu’s intent to confront the pain, horror, and beauty of life along with her appetite for knowledge is evident in the constant yearning in her vocals; these songs are surely invocations, ephemeral spells Lu conjures as offerings to the suffering and hunger.
Future single contender “Poor Fake” arrives out of nowhere. In contrast to the rest of Blood’s earthy delights, the track serves sensual and seductive heavenly disco, marrying cello with the dizzy heights of sparkling four-on-the-floor disco (with a nod to Arthur Russell). The album’s only real misstep is the unnecessary inclusion of Lu’s cover of 10cc’s iconic “I’m Not in Love.” It’s not that Lu’s version doesn’t deliver something new – its tender tones absolutely do – it’s just that her own material is already a captivating enigma that doesn’t benefit from the distraction.
It’s no surprise that the pizzicato sounds of Lu’s oldest collaborator, the cello, are the opening sounds of Blood. Her relationship with the instrument was, in her own words, “love at first stroke,” and Lu’s early material and live set-up is often pared down to just a cello and loop pedal. Although there’s a lot more going on throughout the production on Blood, it’s the cello that takes center stage alongside her vocals (with her sister Jessica McJunkins also contributing violin on much of the record). You could say part of the album’s uniqueness is that Blood is at heart an album of duets between Lu and her beloved cello.
Blood feels less focused than its contemporaries; where those records come with a clear message, the driving forces behind the songs on Blood are often as uncertain as Lu’s own personal search for meaning (maybe this just adds to the ephemeral vibe of the tracks). That said, to get lost in Lu’s timeless, graceful, swooning soul is heavenly exaltation.