Traces and Tears

OK... You've probably worked out by now that I love Karine Polwart's new album "Traces". I'm with others who believe that she is one of Britain's finest songwriters, and in this album she has produced some of her very best work... It has taken a number of years gestation so I'm glad the wait was worth it. She weaves personal memories with political protest through powerful poetic lyrics delivered in her unashamedly Stirlingshire accent.
The album begins with evocations of childhood games on the coastal dunes of Aberdeenshire, in "Cover Your Eyes", a protest against Donald Trump's redevelopment of the Aberdeenshire dunes of the Menie Estate to produce his International Golf Links. This has current local echoes in the controversy around the proposed Runkerry Golf Course on the Causeway coast, as does the poignant last song, "Half a Mile" that I referred to yesterday. It reflects on the abduction and murder in 1982 of Susan Maxwell by Robert Black, who was recently convicted of the murder of Jennifer Cardy the previous year.
Neither of these are obvious subjects for a song and in the hands of a lesser songwriter would have resulted in something clumsily polemic or mawkish respectively. But throughout the album Karine approaches big and difficult subjects from tangential angles that grants a fresh perspective. "Tinsel Show" (a title borrowed from her beloved Robert Burns... and indeed it was because of my love of Eddi Reader's version of Burns' Songs that a friend first introduced me to Polwart) picks up on some of the ideas that Danny Boyle played with in his Olympic opener's evocation of the "dark satanic mills", but Polwart is referring not to something in the past, but the Grangemouth Oil Refinery which continues to affect the environment of the Firth of Forth.
I've already posted the lyrics of "The King of Birds" on National Poetry Day last week, because, as I suggested, a song that "draws together allusions to the Celtic legend, the Battle of the Birds, the Occupy Movement camp at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, its architect Sir Christopher Wren, the Great fire of London that necessitated his great creation, the blitz, and the current economic crisis" is worth noting. 
She similarly weaves together images of soldiers' wives anxiously awaiting the return of their lovers, the story of Androcles and the Lion and an allusion to the story of Lazarus in my own favourite song "Don't Worry". 
Like Mumford and Sons on their first album, who also draw on that image in their song "Roll away your Stone", there are Biblical allusions aplenty, but I'm not aware of any explicit faith position. That said, her work (like Mumford and Sons') raises many spiritual questions, including "Tear's for Lot's Wife" which looks at how difficult it is to leave the familiar behind. A few of the songs speak of mortality, not only the traumatic loss of Susan Maxwell in "Half a Mile", but also "Strange News" drawing on the loss of a younger cousin, and "We're all leaving" inspired by Charles Darwin's loss of his beloved daughter. With regard to this, some argue that it was this which, more than his evolutionary studies, challenged Darwin's belief in a loving omnipotent God - making Karine Polwart's reference to there being no rescuing ark to bear him away all the more powerful. 
So, all in all this is an album worth buying... If it doesn't leave you weeping at some point, go and check with a cardiologist that you actually have a heart in your chest or just a swinging brick.  It isn't likely to be an instant winner... it is too complex for that. But the more you persist with it the more it will get below your skin. In fact I wish I had come up with the closing line of the bbcmusic review, in that it is truly "an album that will live long, an album to live with, and live in."

But don't just take my word for it, others say:
"A complex, thoughtful, engrossing and ultimately substantial album" Roots
"One of our most lyrically striking, and significant, artists." The Glasgow Herald 4 Stars
"One of the finest singer-songwriters in Britain" The Guardian: 4/5 Stars
"Delicately sung and intricately arranged" The Express: 4/5
"Eloquent and at times heartstopping" The Scotsman 5Stars
"An impressively mature collection' Independent
"A carefully crafted delight" The Sun 4 Stars
"Intensely written and arresting" Financial Times 4 Stars
"Polwart's poetic grace and vocal conviction win out" The Observer



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