Emily Portman & Rob Harbron: Time Was Away

I have absolutely adored Emily Portman’s previous albums, Hatchling (2012) and Coracle (2015). They presented a very original artist whose outwardly fragile voice contains immense strength and whose music integrates traditional British folk elements into a unique, dreamlike soundscape, with lyrics to match.

I totally loved them both and I am very happy to say that this new collaboration with Rob Harbron not only reaches, or even surpasses, that level of excellence, it also takes a bit different artistic direction than its predecessors.

Let’s start by noting that Time Was Away is very much a headphones album – and I hope yours are quality headphones. It’s a quiet album with mostly minimal instrumentation, expertly produced by Andy Bell. Each note, vibration and breath are there so please take time with this one. If you play it on the background when cooking your dinner or, worse still, jogging, you will miss out. I guarantee that.

Then the music itself. Time Was Away is that creation where less really is more. The tunes are lovely and haunting and the very sparse and detailed arrangements support the melodies and Emily’s vocals perfectly, and both artists perform very well on their various instruments.

But what really lifts this album is the impact that her singing, the tunes and the lyrics (most are traditional, two are poems) together create. I felt like being within a play or a film as songs like Rosanna (aka Fair Annie), The Game of Cards or The Birds in the Spring played and their stories and imagery unfolded. Simply magical.

The brightest diamonds, for me, came in the end. I have learned that Oh To Be Alone is a poem by an anonymous, most likely female, writer. The text is devastating by itself and the music and Emily’s vocals make it even more so,

The album has many sad stories to tell but the finale, composed to Louis MacNeice’s poem Meeting Point, offers relief. The poem is a hertbreakingly beautiful, slightly mystical expression of the feeling when you realize you are with the one person in the universe you need to be with – when “time was away and somewhere else” – and Emily and Rob’s performance is just so… I was a bit moved, I admit. The song is a jewel, as is the entire album.

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