At its start, Birthdays seems to be a one-note album. Granted, that one note is pleasant. Keaton Henson’s voice, reedy and fragile, is accompanied by a lone electric guitar and a touch of ghostly backing vocals. His reputation as reclusive cult artist, combined with the plaintive intonations of such lyrics as “I’m truly alone and I like it,” can either provide a healthy amount of mystique or a nauseating dose of cliché. The first half sticks religiously to this formula. The third track, “You,” does incorporate some strings, but doesn’t hint at anything different until the fifth, “The Best Today,” brings bass and percussion into the mix.

From there, just as I was wearying of the sad prettiness, wondering how much longer Birthdays could last without completely deflating, the record undergoes a sizable evolution. “Don’t Swim” takes on a more confrontational stance, completely exploding in its final minute with hard-throbbing guitar and drums in jarring contrast to the previous delicacy. “Kronos” follows, this time fully immersed in the heavy rock style.

One might assume that such a sudden and great change would throw off the flow, but the touches present in the preceding songs aid in a natural progression, and it comes down quite nicely afterward as well: “Beekeeper” retains the energy but converts it to a folkier format, “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us” takes it down another peg with horns and percussion before simple piano closer “In The Morning.” He may tiptoe through the early tracks, but Henson’s wavering voice works just as well in these louder surroundings.

In a world where introspective singer-songwriters are dime a dozen, Henson’s crippling self-doubt and brokenhearted soul-baring can easily grow tiring, a mere whimper against a legion of moans. However, this album as a whole is dynamic and engaging, a downer that saves itself from utter sedateness.

In A Word: Surprising

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