The perfect antidote to the loud and omnipresent horror of the US election, Shirley Collins’ first album in thirty years evokes images of a peaceful England located somewhere in the past, a mythical rural space shaped by legend and memorialised in folklore.
On Lodestar, Shirley’s vocals gently complement the folkish pipes, ceremonial drumming and soft guitar, and even Morris bells and birdsong play a role in creating this serene aural landscape.
Look a little closer, however, and you’ll start to see something slightly darker, more austere, emerge.
There’s trouble in Merrie England - fair maidens discover their drown’d sailor sweethearts on the shore, and unsuspecting women are confronted with the myrtle-colour coated personification of Death. ‘Beware of Cruel Lincoln’, warns Lodestar, riffing on the English tale of ‘Lamkin’, in which a woman is murdered by a mysterious figure.
Lodestar manages to be simultaneously earthy and ethereal, combining naturalistic folk themes of landscape and farming with an abstracted spiritualism. ‘God bless the master of this house’, sings Shirley on May Carol, evoking the moralistic Christian mythology which is often found to permeate and inform English folklore.
Churchyards are almost the site of the unholy, the final resting place for a woman who has dropped dead to be laid ‘to bed’ with her lover. Christian sentiment is mentioned in the same breath as obscure, unknowable rituals - ‘a branch of May we do bring you, and at your door we stand’.
This is something wonderfully ancient about Lodestar, like an anachronistic record lost to the ages and rediscovered in the digital age. Tracks such as Old Johnny Buckle and Awake Awake one might expect to hear recreated for historical purposes at an open air museum, songs somehow forgotten just before that point in time when music was first recorded on wax cylinders, yet waiting patiently to be revived.
Shirley’s been described, accurately, as a kind of ‘time traveller’, evoking a mythicized image of glorious Albion whilst allowing the inherent melancholia of the folk tradition to manifest itself. As with Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair/Canticle, a traditional music form becomes an ominous allusion to ‘70s US international policies. Continuing in this tradition of the form informing the content, Lodestar’s The Split Ash Tree sounds like a Scottish regimental funeral march spliced with the backing track to an austere cult’s nature-worshipping ceremony.
Although with an exception to the geographical rule – Pretty Polly, a track which harkens from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas - Hastings born and bred Shirley makes clear her connection to the landscape and folk tradition of Sussex in the themes and style of Lodestar.
It is an excellent record; emotive, reflexive and refreshing – but like any good folk tale, look a little closer and you’ll see darkness emerging between the lines.
Lodestar was released by Domino Records on November 4.
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