Karine Polwart Traces Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

An album that will live long, an album to live with, and live in.

Jude Rogers 2012

Pick characters you'd expect to kick off contemporary folk songs, and you might not name Farrah Fawcett and Steve McQueen. But Karine Polwart's fifth album begins just so, with a young couple who feel just like them, taking in the beauty of Aberdeenshire.

Then the Scottish haar descends, and the actions of the man ready to “tear these dunes asunder” are obscured. Polwart's approach to Donald Trump's takeover of this coastline for a golf course never sounds earnest or needy, however, but funny and sweet, before it packs its devastating punch. This is an approach Polwart excels at, and one that underpins this album's excellence.

Traces reveals Polwart's talents as a writer, above all. Rather than sounding like a simple collection of songs, it plays like a book of short stories set to music, full of stunning nuances and depths. She paints personal memoirs in some, but always with a subtle brush.

Take Strange News, the story of the death of Polwart's younger cousin, which observes the indifference of nature alongside the reactions of family: “The mother does just what she must / And the father comes undone.”

Salter’s Road is a more sentimental eulogy to her elderly neighbour Molly, where “the cold north wind gathers her into his arms once more”. The album's closer Half a Mile tells the tale of Susan Maxwell, a girl the same age as Polwart who was abducted and murdered 30 years ago. Polwart, sensitively and sharply, gives this ghost substance, imagining her “swinging [her] racquet like Navratilova” and singing a verse of that summer's number one single, Come On Eileen. It's the rich life in these details that make these songs really sing.

The music lifts these stories, too. Polwart's gorgeous Stirlingshire vowels are those of a strong singer, but she lets her subjects speak for themselves, as good folk singers always intend to.

The musical landscape behind Polwart is also broader and more inventive than before, with wheezing Indian harmonium, floor percussion and field recordings adding new levels of atmosphere. It all adds up to an album that will live long, an album to live with, and live in.

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