The title of Toronto based artist Clara Engel’s latest release, Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss, sounds like a sign you’d see hanging in a prison waiting room. Just as the rules around incarceration are rigorous, draconian, deliberately cruel and purposefully plain, the dark lyricism of Engel’s haunting words feel monitored and kept in check by the starkness of the music. Only the barest, minimal amount of human contact is allowed, but once lips touch lips, no amount of security can stop emotions from flooding through the barriers.
Love is held prisoner by an Evil Queen, a White Owl, and an Uneasy Spirit, but Engel’s poetic voice provides a path to safety and salvation. Even when a lover is both subsumed and consumed on “Swallow Me”, there’s always the promise that they will be be taken home in the end. The post-apocalyptic imagery of opener “Swans” hints that from ashes, its namesake bird will rise like phoenixes. Moody, low lullabies like the elegiac “Uneasy Spirit”, blink awake as human contributions from many far flung places help bring a human touch to Engel’s primal compositions.
Each pass over these five songs reveals nuances and details that weren’t obvious previously. There’s a howl of sax so prominent on “Swallow Me” that I’m baffled why I didn’t take note of it until I’d lived with the record for more than a week. That’s indicative of the whole of Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss and Clara Engel’s enigmatic musical style; though its combined elements are few, each is powerful enough in its own right to draw your attention and hold your focus.
One kiss? That’s barely enough to taste the richness of Clara Engel’s work.