As Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook was released a while back, I realized I had let her previous album, Laws of Motion, mysteriously slip by in late 2018. So, I thought, here’s a chance to write about them both – what could be better than a Polwart double feature!
Laws of Motion was preceded by A Pocket of Wind Resistance, a stunner of a work, a genuine audio/mind movie that left me totally breathless and in tears the first time I listened to it. It’s a unique and challenging piece – a part of an entire multimedia work – that could be a burden to the artist when she sets out to start on her next creative effort.
Not this time, not her. For Laws employs a very different strategy than Pocket. This is a collection of stories, many of them about being dislocated, or being forced to dislocate, in place or in time, sometimes both. Some of the stories are not easy to figure out – I have only a theory of what Ophelia, the opening track, is about – but they are all filled with startling verbal imagery and many are both touching and wise. Some, like Suitcase and Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart, are based on real 20th century events and people. Karine Polwart has risen to the top tier of my favorite lyricists and the writing on Laws is truly amazing.
Karine, her brother Steven and Inge Thomson form a unit that is most impressive on this album. The instrumentation is mostly acoustic and low key but rich and deep. The title track is the exception from the acoustic framework: powered by electric guitars, the song has a defiant stance as she lays down her powerful case for immigrants and refugees. Politics are also present in another song, I Burn But I Am Not Consumed, a one-of-a-kind take on a certain current world leader, a son of a young woman from the Isle of Lewis and an American businessman of German heritage…
Every song here has its own story, its own personality, and the artist communicates them in her own way: laconic but oh so expressive and clear. At the end of this collection of fables, tales and true life stories there is Cassopeia, a most likely very personal recollection of the late 1970’s Cold War era with its protect and survive instructions and backyard fallout shelters. Even though a very different type of song, it reminds me of the Kate Bush song Breathing, written in 1979, reflecting the nuclear scare at its height. Both these songs are by women, and both of them refuse to give up life even in the face of radioactive fallout. It’s a powerful and humbling closure to an album that is among the artist’s best.
Scottish Songbook, quite recently released, is something else again – and yet very much from the Karine Polwart pool of creativity. I love a good cover version of a great song, but only if that cover brings a new perspective, a new take on the song. And that’s exactly what every song – minus one – on Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook does.
The recipe here is simple: she has chosen a hefty pack of Scottish pop songs of her younger years and redone them, some pretty thoroughly. It’s obvious she loves these tunes and this is very much a labour of love. The overall feeling is relaxed, airy and happy, even if the dominant style is gentle and subdued; there’s a glockenspiel or something like it on most tracks, giving the songs a dreamy music box hue. I made a playlist of the original tracks and played it and this album back to back, and it was great fun as her versions are usually quite far removed from the originals. What’s most important is that these readings stand well on their own two feet, entertaining and warm even if you’re not familiar with their history; if you are, it’s all that and certainly interesting as well.
Everyone will pick their own favorites here; mine are Dignity (by Deacon Blue), Whole Of The Moon (by The Waterboys), Since Yesterday (by Strawberry Switchblade) and The Mother We Share, whose original version by The Chvrches is in my ears pretty horrid but Karine P. has heard a brilliant song inside the performance and come up with a jewel. Thanks for that, and everything else 🙂