(Domino Records, out Fri 22nd Feb 2019)
“I ain’t no bothy hero,” declares James Yorkston on My Mouth Ain’t No Bible, the rolling spoken-word epic that is the centrepiece of this album, a rumination on life and music that’s partly his words, partly those of a friend who never made it. “If I can manage to get to age 65 still alive,” he continues. “I will stick my middle finger to the world… the stagnant fiddles and woesome, lonesome harmonies.”
In both word and deed the track is very Yorkston. He might seem like a folkie, hermited away in a fishing village in Fife, but when he’s at his finest, as on this track, he transcends those “stagnant fiddles”, fusing Scottish folk with Eastern scales, krautrock rhythms and anything else that takes his fancy to carve out beautiful new musical niches. In a quiet way, he’s avant-garde. He ain’t no bothy hero.
But then maybe he is. Flanking My Mouth Ain’t No Bible are The Blue of the Thistle and Solitary Islands All, two tracks of gently lapping, barely there, finger-picked folk. “I hang my harp on a willow tree and I’ll be off to the wars again,” he sings on the latter, trad as you like. Suddenly we’re staring intensely into our real ales and shushing anyone who disrupts the singer. The Villages I Have Known My Entire Life drops away even further, Yorkston lullaby singing over a loosely sketched piano part. This is the paradox of Yorkston. For someone so expansive in his influences, he very easily slips back into backwoodsman campfire noodling.
Fortunately, attention to detail helps these meandering folk melodies find their feet. You won’t be humming them, but you might appreciate the textures that Yorkston and collaborator David Wrench uncover in them. Crisp production lets the cracks in Yorkston’s voice come through, and arcane instrumentation adds spice. He’s racked up a ramshackle mini-orchestra in his Cellardyke loft and got playful with it. Muted trumpet zhooshes up a few numbers. Low-in-the-mix clarinet helps too. But it’s the concocotion of harmoniums, zithers and autoharps that are most striking, layered upon each other to give monochrome tunes some colour.
Shallow pits this creaking vintage instrumentation against a pulsing Chariots of Fire undercurrent. Spoken word number, The Irish Wars of Independence, which reflects upon sectarianism and its impact on his younger self, is lifted by bursts of bright strings in the “chorus”, while it’s the keening trumpet that draws the ear on Like Bees To Foxglove. Brittle, the simplest, prettiest melody here, and one which would have fit snugly on his early albums, also benefits from a slow, jazzy autoharp and trumpet instrumental break. Oh Me, Oh My is one track that’s been left relatively unadorned, but it has something of the Spaghetti Western soundtrack about it, or even Cohen’s version of The Partisan, which keeps things interesting.
Among such subtlety, the more animated numbers are bound to draw the attention. Yorkston Athletic has been revived from his days with the Athletes to be the penultimate track and it could be My Mouth Ain’t No Bible‘s slightly noisier sibling, the instruments whipping up a stormy sea of dischordancy over which Yorkston’s spoken word sails. That change of pace is needed after too much gentleness.
To close, the perversely upbeat A Footnote To An Epitaph reminds us why we’re here. “When I think of you, I think of you happy,” he sings to absent friends. That sense of loss, and of aging, has suffused the album, but not overwhelmed it. As always with Yorkston’s output, there’s a lot going on beneath its still, quiet surface. The Route To The Harmonium is worth some exploration.