The emotion and honesty on display are qualities that will never go out of style.
James Skinner 2012
James Yorkston’s fifth album proper deals with some meaty, adult themes – from the complexities of long-term relationships and the heaving onslaught of depression to the selective nature of memory.
But what colours its more striking moments is a palpable sense of injustice. Border Song is a breathless tumble of words, images and instrumentation, Yorkston spitting out counsel and loose narrative until the lines bleed together, while the closing I Can Take All This bitterly rebukes an unnamed deity.
A couple of years ago, as Yorkston prepared to take part in the Fence Collective’s annual Homegame mini-festival, his young daughter was taken seriously ill. Working on I Was a Cat from a Book gave him an opportunity to vent his feelings and combat the sense of helplessness he no doubt dealt with on a daily basis.
To that end, The Fire & the Flames forms this album’s affecting centrepiece, wounded and sombre where those previously mentioned are all bluster and chaos. As a meditation on a parent shielding their child from incomprehensible truths, it is unsparing; in the light of Yorkston’s own situation, it is devastating.
Yet I Was a Cat from a Book does offer a few moments of levity amid these themes. The lovely duet Just as Scared finds Yorkston offset by Jill O’Sullivan’s earthy, satisfying tones, both propped up by a sparkling, unobtrusive turn on the clarinet by Sarah Scutt. Elsewhere, Catch opens the record with a bittersweet recollection of youth set against the flourish of John Ellis’ piano.
It is a beautifully shaded work, recorded mostly live with an accomplished cast of musicians that also includes Luke Flowers of The Cinematic Orchestra on drums, Emma Smith on violin and Kathryn Williams on guest vocals (she appears on the slow, almost somnambulant Kath With Rhodes). Images of birds and feathers swirl throughout, Yorkston’s delivery cracked and urgent or plaintive and subtle as needs be.
Innovative arrangements aside, this might not be the most forward-thinking LP you’ll hear this year. But the emotion and honesty on display are qualities that will never go out of style.