I haven’t bought the latest Drive By Truckers CD. It’s called “The Unraveling” and it’s now the only album by them I don’t own. It’s meant to be very good. I have the other 13 CDs but I don’t really want this one. This is a bit of a problem for me because I recognise that part of me is a collector. I quite like knowing that I own every album by Van Morrison, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. I’ve just counted and I own 166 discs of music by Bob Dylan. This is not something I’m especially proud of; I just recognise that there is an obsessive part of me that couldn’t bear not to buy a new release by these heroes of mine. I mean, I bought the latest Bob Dylan triple CD where he “sings” with Johnny Cash and I’ve played it for about 20 minutes and gave up. I’ve listened to the Drive By Truckers’ album on Spotify and it’s OK but it’s just a bit loud. It seems that as I get older, my love of loud rock music is waning and my need for calm and subtlety is waxing. One of the things I love, one of the things that persuaded me to go back to work for a few months this year is getting into a classroom an hour before the lesson starts at 7:30, tidying up the room, putting out the worksheets, writing the lesson plan on the board, making a cup of tea and putting on some calm music whilst reflecting, meditating, contemplating, thinking, preparing; often to the sound of Alexi Murdoch singing his beautiful calm Nick Drake-inspired folk music. It’s a moment of utter calm and pleasure. Loud rock music – out. Quiet folk music – in.
Last year I was ill for a few days and I spent a lot of time in bed. On one occasion I played Spotify on my phone and listened to a mixture of Kate Rusby music. It was lovely. I drifted off to sleep and when I woke there was the most perfect music playing which lifted my spirits and made me think “et in arcadio ego”, to quote not only a chapter from “Brideshead Revisited” but also the two part climax to the first season of “Star Trek: Picard” (last episode out tomorrow!). Anyway, the music was beautiful and I looked to see who it was and found out that Spotify had decided that if I liked Kate Rusby, I’d like Karine Polwart. I had listened to some of her stuff before but dismissed it as fairly ordinary Scottish folk music. Nice but unremarkable. I was wrong. This album is a thing of wonder. It’s beautiful, it’s clever, it’s profound, it’s moving and it’s not folk music!
The music is varied. Let’s go back to Wikipedia: Karine Polwart sings “folk music.” Yes, it’s not hip-hop, polka, country, Latin or soul music but it defines its own category. It’s actually by Karine Polwart but with Pippa Murphy who is described as a sound engineer. The instruments on the album include a synthesiser, harmonium, sansula, marimba, glockenspiel, drums and “wailing.” Or to put it another way, it’s not 14 songs with a guitar and a female singer – it’s more interesting than that.
There are many themes running through this album. One is the story of Will and Roberta Sime whose daughter lived near Karine Polwart. She has cleverly weaved several other songs (some of which are on her previous albums) into a story line which is explained by quite a few spoken pieces. I can’t really identify a favourite song on this album because there are so many highlights but one fantastic piece of music is the six minute “Small Consolation” where a spoken introduction describes how a pregnant Roberta Sime discovers a smashed swallows nest. This leads into a version of the song “Faultlines” from Karine Polwart’s first album (also called “Faultlines”) which includes the heartbreaking lyrics “Have you ever held something/Until your hands were aching?/And then let it go and watched it fall/And listened to it breaking?”
Karine Polwart contrasts her own experience giving birth with that of Roberta Sime in “White Old Woman Of The Night.” This leads into a version of “The Death Of Queen Jane” from her third album (“Fairest Floo’er”) which she has transformed into “Sphagnum Mass For A Dead Queen.” It tells the story of the death of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, after giving birth to the future Edward VI. Her performance of this song is utterly stunning.
The penultimate song on the album is “Molly Sime’s Welcome To Salter’s Road” (which is also over six minutes long) and it always brings me to tears. It’s a reworking of “Salter’s Road” from her fifth album (“Traces”). There’s a spoken introduction about Will’s reaction to (spoiler alert!) Roberta’s death and eases into a description of a horseman’s only daughter who, it transpires in the heart wrenching last minutes of the song is Karine Polwart’s neighbour. “I knew that wee girl, Molly, when she was an old woman. She was my neighbour on the old Salter’s Road. On the last evening of her life I went to visit her with my son and he ran the full length of the ward shouting “Molly! Molly!” Molly Christensen, the only daughter of Will and Roberta Sime.” I’m welling up now, hearing it for the thousandth time.
Another theme is symbiotic relationship between humans, birds and the moor where the story is set. The final song is “We Are All Bog Born”. The sleeve notes for this song are “A thousand blessings upon all the warm, wild, wet places, intimate and expansive that gift us all this life. Hold it dear. Hold it dear.”