Towards the end of Bryn Haworth’s ‘Moments’, having reflected upon our relative ephemerality, the songwriter emphasises the importance of recognising our value to others while we’re still here. “These are the memories that we made so well, lives like stories that we long to tell” took on unimaginable significance once in the hands of the quite remarkable Sandy Denny. Not only did she inhabit those words like her own, as she had done with songs many and varied for years before, but they were the last she would ever record. The unadorned performance of this track which ends proceedings here was Denny’s final studio recording, eleven months prior to her death, aged only 31, from a brain haemorrhage.
Hers is a life with stories that should be told and Mick Houghton did an admirable job in the 2015 biography, ‘I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn’, with which this collection shares its name. Denny left behind a catalogue of wondrous performances but it remains unrecognised by many. Her peripatetic career involved two stints with Fairport Convention, participation in a brief folk scene supergroup The Bunch, an early recording with The Strawbs, her own group Fotheringay and time as a solo artist in and around it all. While such chopping and changing has left a wealth of recordings, it perhaps contributed to her being without a record deal and off the radar when she died.
While her striking voice was always the star of the show, Denny was often reluctant to leave it too exposed and thus it was ensconced amongst either the personnel of one of those many bands or sweeping production. While many arrangements could be wonderful, there are those for whom the acoustic, pared-down incarnation best highlights her talent. This 40-track, 2 CD set is designed to offer an alternative overview of a varied career. It roams across a decade’s worth of recordings, commencing with an intimate early reading of her most famous composition, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, dating from her time with The Strawbs in 1967.
Soon after, songs from her first spell with Fairport appears in less familiar forms, ‘Autopsy’ from ‘Unhalfbricking’ is haunting and direct, a far cry from its brooding, soulful album version, while ‘She Moves Through The Fair’ is represented by the acoustic master upon which the various layers of the studio version were built. Pulling together material from the various archive releases of recent years, ‘I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn’ is a bizarrely cohesive set, underlining the power of Denny’s voice. Tucked away at the end of the first disc are three songs of most interest to long time fans. These demos for the covers album ‘Rock On’ by The Bunch are breezily effortless, ‘When Will I Be Loved’ in duet with Linda Thompson the highlight.
A drone-driven initial take on ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ from 1972’s ‘Sandy’ album arguably surpasses its final version, while ‘The Lady’ is one of several songs that sound enticingly unencumbered when freed from familiar string arrangements. An early piano reading of ‘No End’ from her ludicrously overlooked 1973 album ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ is unthinkably powerful in its simplicity.
While the obsessive fan will have the vast majority of this set across the recent deluxe editions and box sets, ‘I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn’ makes for a hugely satisfying listen as a career-spanning compilation. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to fathom how these songs, in these clothes, couldn’t ignite a curiosity around somebody whose music remains utterly, utterly captivating. Through its careful curation, this set tells the story of Sandy Denny so very well.
Words: Gareth James
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