It seems fitting that “Holy Smoke” is highly minimal.
It’s a track that invites you to quietly join it in the open space, to have the room to feel what you need to as the track slowly calms you.
Nicki Wells seems to have been influenced by a wealth of different musical styles but here she slowly muses on grieving and loss with very few instruments and gives you the time to feel it too.
There’s not much here.
Voice, strings, piano.
And space. Very deliberate space.
The track quivers into life with tentative strings and quiet piano, the unpredictable time signatures creating pauses where you wouldn’t expect them, forcing you to contemplate for a second, a perfect musical illustration of the moments in life that stop us in our tracks.
Take me down the River Wye
Feel the cold beneath my hand
Where there’s nothing more to say
Or even understand
Is she in the River? I have this vision of her sitting on some vessel that is carrying the body of her loved one as she puts her hand in the water and feels it flow, free of having to intellectualize it, rather just to let the feeling overtake her.
The next words are no more clear than the last as to whether she is awake or dreaming, here or elsewhere:
Is it daylight is it night?
Fading laughter in the fields
Breathing in the misty light
As the body yields
I don’t really need to know if the body that yields belongs to the singer succumbing to grief or their loved one succumbing to death. For me there’s a universal quality to her words, an ambiguity I don’t want to pick at. I just want to accept them as they are, to meditate with the singer over a moment that can perhaps never be explained properly, just as death forever retains its mystery.
In the choruses, Wells sings:
Time to face the angel’s grace
Feel the light upon your face
Who would ever have known how
Beautiful you are right now?
It’s time to say goodbye, to muse on what might have happened had the cards fallen differently, where everyone might have been had they still been with us.
At the end of the chorus she holds the word now beautifully to add a subtle choral harmony to the end of it, another moment that lasts a little longer, another second to hold onto someone before they’re gone.
Then she pleads:
Please don’t go away
But it’s evidently too late. The chorus comes back in.
The beautifully entwined harmonies and occasional flourishes of strings embellish the song in keeping with its slow, ethereal quality, magically funereal.
Somewhere after this track finishes, the reality that someone has gone has to be dealt with.
But while you’re in it, there’s magic in the air. You’re floating with the angels.
As Wells herself puts it, “there can be beauty in the relinquishment of gently letting go.”