The last Alison Cotton album that I wrote about was 2018’s ‘All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre’ about which I said: ”…what is perhaps the most remarkable thing about this set of songs is how they are at the same time both powerful and fragile. Taking the opening, title track, as an example, built around a short repeating coda it gradually grows in intensity not because it does so musically but because of the power of repetitive drone which just emerges inside you and expands in your consciousness. At the same time you are aware of the potency of the space within the music… space that you can fill with your own thoughts and feelings. Yet if this is a space it is one that is shifting, a catacomb bedecked with ivy was one vision that I got when listening to this… yet with the walls constantly shifting.”
…and In many ways I feel the same about this, her fourth solo album, and her first for Rocket Recordings (Feeding Tube in the US)… actually if anything more so… That is because going back to the previous album is still a beautiful and fulfilling experience, but this feels like a more mature and coherent album that, for me, marks a step forward for Cotton as an artist.
Hailing from the North East of England, Cotton is also one half of The Left Outsides, with husband Mark Nicholas… who also produces her solo works. It is this heritage that evident across a lot of this set… including, after the short enchanting overture of ’Murmurations Over The Moor’, the second piece, ’The Last Wooden Ship’ which recalls the shipyards of Sunderland with Cotton’s viola, harmonium and voice each channelling the melancholic longing for a past age… this is folk music at it’s more raw and stripped back, which evokes a sense of what was… you can feel that you are there in the emptiness of former glories… the haunting echos replacing the bustle and clattering… it’s a piece which seems to intensify as you get further into it with the ghosts drifting past you as you imagine the scene. It is a track that remains compelling to the last… a full on experience that is ultimately so rewarding.
After that ’I Buried The Candlesticks’ immediately has more form to it with Cotton’s viola conjuring more shapes in a manner that draws you in so intently… with the harmonium and percussion down in the mix, and little in the way of voice, this feels like such an intimate listen… even on my cheap bluetooth speaker is sounds as if Cotton is in the room with you playing… and I’m very much looking forward to seeing her at Bishop’s House in Sheffield next month.
’That Tunnel Underground Seemed Neverending’ begins with a drone that is quickly opened out by Cotton’s voice into an awakening of the experience of Northumberland miners in the early 20th Century… the eeriness and strangeness of the labyrinthine passages… the strange silences are palpable as you notice the spaces in the music almost as much as the music itself. Indeed, I find this piece as emotional as anything I’ve heard from Cotton as she really seems to get inside the experience of that unimaginable hard and dangerous work… it really is nothing short of stunning.
The arrival of lyrics for ’Violet May’ comes as both an uplift and a clarification of the mood of the album… it is like everything focusses for a moment as Cotton sings of ”a reclusive artist who has forsaken all else for a life of solitary creation in her tower”… it is a lament and it is sung with a great deal of verve and melancholy… perhaps with a longing for what might have been, either way it is a wonderful track that really captures the essence of solitude.
Last up is ‘17th November 1962’, which commemorates a nearly forgotten fishing boat disaster and doomed rescue attempt which Cotton, once again, manages to evoke beautifully. I really like how she brings back to life historical events that would otherwise fall into the depths of forgotten histories… usually celebrating people whose lives will have been hard and, perhaps even at the time, largely unnoticed… resurrecting these memories in such a thoughtful and compassionate manner.
Wow. Although I had listening to this a couple of times before sitting down to write about it, it is only when I got inside the subject matter that I really appreciated what Cotton was doing here… it strikes me that in many ways this is folk music in its purest sense… summoning the ghosts of the past and bringing them alive once more. For me this is a tour de force of empathic story telling through music and, only occasionally, lyrics… it stirs up the past in a way that makes you think about the protagonists afresh… something which I very much appreciate as I look out of my window as view the grassed-over slag heaps of the old Orgreave Coking Works.
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