The patient, a young singer-songwriter – call him Keaton H – suffers debilitating anxiety attacks. Stage fright made it impossible for him to play in public until recently. He has come to the London home of Sigmund Freud, now a museum dedicated to the father of psychoanalysis, in an attempt to sublimate the anxiety-provoking conflict between the libidinous urges of the id and the internalised objects of the superego; or in plain English, play a gig.
My notes indicate that the session began 10 minutes late. A cellist came on and played some Bach. The audience sat in rows of chairs in the museum’s lecture room. Henson – sorry, Keaton H – entered and sat down on a chair next to the cellist. The analysand, 24, was bearded, had a thin intense face and wore a smart suit. He recorded his first album in his bedroom in Richmond, south-west London, and released it last year. The follow-up Birthdays ups the production values: it was made in California with a producer who has worked with The Killers and The Strokes.
He sang the first number “Sweetheart, What Have You Done to Us?” with his eyes cast down at his guitar, leaning into the microphone. The vocals were intimate yet amplified, a mix of self-absorption and self-assertion. Meanwhile the lyrics cast the singer as the passive-aggressive victim of a collapsing relationship, complaining “What have you done?” to the ex who has “broken” their “love”.
Viewed unkindly, Henson is a caricature of the sensitive male singer-songwriter. His voice is a fragile, quavering thing and his songs are as delicate as bruised feelings. In between tracks he went through a repertoire of awkward tics – eye-rubbing, sighing, head-scratching. “There’s a lot of you,” he marvelled, as though the room’s perspective were telescoping away from him like a character in a Hitchcock film: Vertigo, or more appropriately Stage Fright.
A back story like Henson’s can overwhelm the music it sets out to contextualise. That he just about avoided the danger in tonight’s short, 40-minute set was down to a subtly artful performing style, as when he looked up to stare at the audience at the line, “This is the world as I see it now”, and glimpses of a tougher, more unsparing sensibility: “When you look through me/I wonder what you see.” Some witty banter at the cellist’s expense – a man with a bigger instrument, attending Freudians couldn’t help noting – provided final evidence that sublimation had been achieved.