The Living Mountain, an album inspired by Nan Shepherd’s iconic nature book, was released to rave reviews in October of 2020. At the time, I was mentally trying to adjust to the then raging global covid surge and the insecurity and uncertainty it caused – it’s a blessing I could not foresee then that only 16 months later, something even more cruel would be unleashed.
In those angst-ridden circumstances, I gave Jenny Sturgeon’s album little more than a fleeting glance, checking out a song here and a fragment there. I felt I could not connect to its mood and left it at that. I didn’t even try to review it. My mental state simply shut it out.
Now when I a few days ago wrote about Emily Portman’s new album and it’s haunting, dreamlike quality it made me go back to The Living Mountain to find out if I’d be more receptive this time.
The answer is yes. I found her singing extremely brilliant, and the soundscape, a finely woven combination of actual nature sounds (from the Cairngorms) and sparse acoustic instrumentation, fascinating and immersive. The Living Mountain is one of what I call “Zen Folk” albums of recent years, along with the new Portman album, Lauren MacColl’s Landskein, Karine Polwart’s A Pocket of Wind Resistance and some other quietly powerful, deeply focused works where the spaces and silences within and around the sounds are as important as the deceptively ascetic music.
But of all these remarkable works, The Living Mountain is my least favorite, even after listening to it in peace and quiet and concentration. For me, it’s mainly a gentle meditation, a rosary of melodies and lyrics and sounds that paint for me an image of the Highland nature. I like it and I welcome the calm it brings.
But I also miss the more ethereal, intuitive, hard-to-define element I sense in the other works I mentioned. I believe it’s just me; as we all are tuned to each our own unique wavelenght, it’s only natural that works of art impact us differently. Most people would say “yes, we have different tastes” but that’s not quite what I mean.
I guess the way I have been tuned makes me appreciate something that is, on the whole, less clear, with a sense of an unanswered question in the middle and bit more space for your own interpretation.
Against this tuning of mine, for me The Living Mountain comes across as a bit too… defined, done, clear? Something like that. I enjoy it and I appreciate the artistic achievement on this album, but the really deep, hairs-raised, trance state reaction is not there.
But it is a fine album in all, and it made me learn about Nan Shepherd’s book that I now intend to read. And it made me write this meditation on what I described as a meditation.
Not just any music can do that.