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Karine Polwart – Laws of Motion

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Folk stalwart’s seventh album is balm for the soul

Image of Karine Polwart – Laws of Motion

(Hudson Records, out Fri 19 Oct 2018)

Laws of Motion is an optimistic album. Produced by the Karine Polwart Trio (consisting of the song meistress herself plus her brother Steven, and Inge Thomson), it acknowledges the rush, horror and separation of contemporary life, but offers up hope and positivity in the face of it.

BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year in 2018, Polwart is from Bannock in Stirlingshire and uses native vocabulary in her lyrics: “hollers from the delta” (Laws of Motion) and the “skirl and moan” of the wind (Cornerstone) being just two examples. She alludes to earthquake and tempest, human cruelty and war, and juxtaposes them with the quiet of the night sky, gardens, and remote islands.

Ophelia, the first song, is named after the hurricane and is painted in a fiery palette: the red dust of the desert; the sun; blood; and burning trees. In contrast, the plaintive, sweet vocals create a strong visual image of two people in reflective mood after an argument.

Laws of Motion, the title track, conjures up poignant images of exile and migration such as “babies wrapped in prayer shawls”. It was originally written with Martin Green for Flit, a multi-media project in 2016. The images are disturbing but there are threads of love and life throughout and the music is matched to the melody with powerful, opening instrumental surges.

In I burn but I am not consumed it is refreshing to come across an original approach to Donald Trump’s relationship with the Scottish soil. He was born on the Isle of Lewis and Polwart imagines what the ancient rocks would say about his behaviour, concluding that however powerful he thinks he is, he doesn’t command the elements. Here the spoken word is effectively interspersed with lines of harmonic melody, as in Cassiopeia.

There are numbers which take their subjects from history, such as Suitcase (again written with Green) about the kinder transport in which 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain for safety just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The narratives are matched in power by the soundtracks, as in Heading For Home where the opening and underlying drone, together with the final glockenspiel “bells” and the harmony on “and listen” create echos of a lonely landscape.

Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart opens with the beautiful line, “I was born on a jasmine wind”, harking back to her highly successful 2017 collection, A Pocket of Wind Resistance. Light bubbles of Japanese lotus and water lily are conjured with the tremble and pretty picking of guitar and wavering voice.

Three more songs include war: Young Man on a Mountain about the Polwart grandfather who fought in the Battle of Cerere (Italy 1944); Crow on the cradle, Polwart’s reworking of Sydney Carter‘s anti-war song using nursery rhymes in a chilling rumination on bringing a baby into a war-torn world; and Cassiopeia opening with sparse piano and with sparkling runs and trills used alongside the spoken word, reminiscent of Floret Silva Undique, Martyn Bennett’s setting of Hamish Henderson’s poem on the album Martyn Bennett

In this work Polwart asks what we are left with in the face of the terrible occurrences of our world, how to survive the horror of it all. And she gives us this answer: be still and quiet, be thoughtful and take pleasure in the beauty of our natural environment. Together with haunting melodies and fascinating stories, these songs linger behind in the soul.