Karine Polwart sings stories. But for her ‘Scottish songbook’, she’s taking on another challenge. A national songbook, compiled of a sheaf of classics, that for once isn’t written by her own hand.
Announced with her reading of Ivor Cutler's 'Women Of The World' on International Women's Day, the album (recorded at Chem 19) offers reinterpretations of tracks spanning 60 years of Scottish pop. Not one to do things by halves, she’s penned a series of essays to accompany each of the album’s tracks.
Taking in everything from The Waterboys and John Martyn to Deacon Blue and Biffy Clyro, she brings an ethereal sensibility to all she touches. ‘Whole of the Moon’ waxes and wanes, taking the bombast out of what we know – in her hands, it emerges as a thing of fragile, surprising beauty.
'Since Yesterday' has a particularly personal core. Informed by the experience of her grandfather’s dementia, she spliced an old tape recording of his voice around her own – in a duet, of sorts, on the old Strawberry Switchblade classic.
Stripping the 80s polish of production from Dignity by Deacon Blue, she allows the lilt of her voice to push the song into gentler waters – a eternally affectionate portrait softened into spidery delicacy. And she’s back out on the waves on 'Swim Until You Can’t See Land'. "Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?" she challenges quietly, inviting you to the softest fight you’ve ever been asked to.
For me, it’s the unexpected pieces that bring the magic. 'The Mother We Share', using acoustic instrumentation instead of electronic sheen, gleefully inverts the typical order of things – and the call and response retains all its gleam. But it isn’t all elemental word-play and tenderly plucked sentiment.
Menace lurks in her treatment of John Martyn. “I don’t want to know about evil, I only want to know about love” she pleads, building on a bed of slowly intensifying emotion, voice almost ready to crack. ‘Whatever’s Written in Your Heart’ pleases with its hops between major and minor, caught in the bittersweet exchange of secrets and vulnerability that constitutes love. It typifies her approach to every track on this album. Peeling back the veneer on these songs, she exposes their barest essence and magnifies the lyrical skeleton underneath.
And there’s no truer place than on the closing note: ‘Women of the World’ by Ivor Cutler. “Women of the World, take over. Because if you don’t, the world will come to an end.” It’s a clarion call, as gentle as a breeze, in a world crying out for tenderness. And it feels exactly like what we need to hear right now.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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