There are few, if any, who remain from the old guard of the 1960s British folk revival whose name carries the same weight as Shirley Collins. Whether alone, with her sister Dolly, or alongside the most revered artists of that movement — The Albion Band, Davy Graham and The Incredible String Band to name but three — as a performer, composer and arranger, her mastery of the genre was all but unparalleled, Collins approaching folk’s deep tradition with an always unbroken principle of purity and respect.
‘Lodestar’ is Collins’ first studio album since 1978’s collaboration with Dolly, ‘For Many as Will’, and David Tibet of experimental outfit Current 93 coaxed her from hiding two years ago, she had not performed in public since 1982, retiring soon afterwards after having retired from performance after contracting dysphonia, which left her unable to sing. Since then, however, her strength of influence has only been bolstered, with the likes of Billy Bragg, Johnny Marr and Stewart Lee — the latter of whom provides liner notes on the new record — singing her praises as a British institution to new generations, and her recorded return has been to the delight of a larger number than might at first be apparent.
As Collins told Uncut earlier this month: “English folk music says everything I need to say and in the most glorious way… When you’ve got thousands of songs from hundreds of years behind you which is real folk music, why are you writing something yourself?” and as with her older material she draws entirely from English, American and Cajun tradition, from the 16th century to the 1950s, her performances pure and free from any affectation.
The fact that Collins still declines to stray from anything other than what’s natural, however, means that 38 years on much has changed about her voice. Whereas in the first era of her career she sang with a sweet, affecting lilt, here she embraces the intensity that comes at her 81 years of age, cracks in her voice embraced rather than papered over for a deeply fixating, commanding listen. This is complemented, too, by sparse, penetrating production, particularly on opening suite ‘Awake Awake/The Split Ash Tree/May Carol/ Southover’, which sets the tone in ominous, cutting style.
Elsewhere, things take brighter turns (‘The Banks Of Green Willow’, ‘Pretty Polly’) and melancholy ones (‘Death And The Lady’, ‘Sur Le Borde De l’Eau’), though maintained within an aesthetic that only strays from glinting plucks of acoustic guitar for the occasional lilt of gorgeous strings and muffled thuds of drums, and Collins retains her command throughout. Further still, though she draws entirely from a millennia-long canon of ancient ballads and folk standards, at no point does a song feel anything other than Collins’ own. She embraces their words, often of death and reminiscence on youth, as if they’d come from deep within herself. It is, after 38 years, a fine reminder of her vital place in British musical tradition, as the essential elder stateswoman of folk.
Words: Patrick Clarke
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