Often folk singers will perform with a certain place in mind. No other genre is quite so aware of its geographical heritage. A regional accent, a political stance, a particular choice of instrument or a way of describing a landscape: all of these can signify, with varying degrees of subtlety, a sense of location or sometimes dislocation. But there are other, equally valid, subjects for artists to tackle, and one of these is what we might call the human condition, or more specifically the nuance of human interpersonal relationship. With quiet but noteworthy ambition, the latest album by Hannah Read, her second, attempts to reconcile both of these strands. While this may not be unique, Read’s methods are all her own, and the results are fascinating.
Read is Scottish, but lives and works in the United States. Way Out I’ll Wanderwas recorded in two separate winter sessions, a year apart, in New Hampshire and upstate New York. And as I have suggested, location is important. The rural, mountainous areas where Read worked provide a link, perhaps a subconscious link, to the landscapes of her homeland. This allows her to perform in a way that recalls the musical heritage of both of her homes, and that acknowledges the shared aspects of that heritage as well as its differences. And just as importantly, it allows her to approach lyrical subjects of her songs – people and relationships she has known, shared pasts – with enough distance to make for clear-eyed, objective portraits, painted with affection and skill.
With that in mind, the opening track, Moorland Bare, is something of an outlier in that its lyrics are not Read’s own but are taken from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was another Scot who spent some time in upstate New York, and for whom the idea of home was powerful and complex. Moreland Bare, then, makes a natural and excellent scene-setter, with its darkly romantic recollections of the Scottish heaths. But more than that, it is a stunningly performed piece that instantly showcases Read’s ability to command the terrain of a song. The gentle but bittersweet strum of acoustic guitar carries a voice that is remarkably clear but full of transatlantic ghosts: there are echoes of both her adopted homeland and her place of birth in every phrase. Amongst other things, it is an apposite reminder of the borderlessness of art.
It is followed by the first of the detailed character sketches which are to become a trademark of the album. Ringleader shows Read at her darkest and most ambiguous. Its message is potent but enigmatic, revolving around the idea that the worst human behaviour is entrenched through generations, feeds off weakness, and is incredibly difficult to change. As if to let the gravity of this song sink in, Read follows it up with a short instrumental interlude led by her unhurried, melancholy fiddle, and owing as much to modern chamber music, jazz or film scores as to folk. Indeed, an important feature of the whole record is a tactful use of a wide range of instruments: Read’s fiddle and guitar (along with the guitar work of Jefferson Hamer) is brilliantly underpinned by the upright bass of Jeff Picker. This makes up the album’s musical core, but there are various other flourishes throughout – woodwind, saxophone, lap steel, piano – which are knitted together wonderfully by co-producer and engineer Charlie Van Kirk.
I’ll Still Sing Your Praises is one of the most personal, most powerful and rawest songs here. To a minimal musical backdrop, Read sings with fondness, resignation and sadness of the end of a relationship set against the opposed territories of city and countryside. The song’s final line ‘You’re no longer the one that I call home’, is a microcosm of the album’s theme of belonging, and how the deeply human need to belong with another human is entwined with the more abstract idea of belonging in a certain place.
Alexander is another of the ‘character’ songs, though this one is much fonder. Here, a softly distorted electric guitar gives the song a welcome warmth, while the chorus – simply the name ‘Alexander’ sung like a charm – is open-ended and generous-hearted, a reminder that simply speaking a person’s name can be an act of kindness. She Took A Gamble rests on a cat’s cradle of intertwined guitars and an innovative vocal performance that, in terms of melody at least, recalls early Joni Mitchell. Lyrically, Read focuses on small but important details that anchor the song in a time and place – hermit crabs in the sucking tide, ropes clinging to stones – before zooming out to view the wider picture of interconnected lives and difficult decisions.
This juxtaposition of fine details and grander, more universal ideas is a technique that can yield heartbreaking results. The album’s title track is a case in point. After a graceful fiddle intro, Read sets the scene with needle-sharp descriptions of cold air and snow on fallen trees, before the sadness at the song’s heart hits her – and the listener – in a slow wintry sweep, and a heavy freight of grief is lightly but devastatingly revealed. And it works with the happier songs too. Boots describes the unknowable point in a relationship when things change, in this case for the better. But once again it is in the minutiae the song’s power builds: the clothes on the floor, light falling on a cheekbone. Before you realise it you are caught in the small, perfectly formed world of the song’s narrative.
Final track Campsea Ashe (presumably the name refers to the Suffolk village) is perhaps as close as Read gets to straight Americana – and maybe its position on the album is a nod to the direction (musical or geographical) in which she is moving. But there is more to it than that: here the lyrics deal as much with time as with place, hinting at yet another dimension to the already enviable talent on show in Read’s songwriting. Way Out I’ll Wander is a fine achievement: listening to each of its songs is like watching the snow settle in an exquisitely crafted snow globe, revealing an image of pristine clarity.
Way Out I’ll Wander is out on 23rd February 2018.