Originally conceived as the musical accompaniment to her theatrical debut production of the same name in collaboration with sound designer Pippa Murphy, this now takes on independent life as an album in its own right. Inspired by watching the migration of some two thousand geese to Fara Flow, a peat bog near her Edinburgh home, and the way they took turns to create pockets of wind resistance to assist each other’s flight, Polwart embarked on a project concerning how we depend upon and help one another, not a little reinforced by having become a mother. It also serves as a warning of the dangers of isolating ourselves from others.
It opens with ‘All On A Summer’s Evening’, a sparse rendering of the traditional ‘Skippin’ Barfit Through the Heather’ accompanied by minimal glacial glockenspiel and thumb piano notes giving a drone effect that gives way to a spoken word passage describing the area around Fara Flow and introducing the narrative’s central characters, farmer and ex-soldier Will Sime and his wife, Roberta.
It flows seamlessly into the atmospheric ‘The Moor Speaks’ which, arranged for harp, drums, bass and a dense skein of backing vocals, offers a list of the many different mosses that grow here and, an indication of Roberta’s pregnancy, a refrain about “my little one” interwoven into a web of Gaelic hymn and field recordings.
Next up comes a carefree, buoyant treatment of ‘The Lark In The Clear Air’ framed with harp and rippling marimba that underscores the notion of open spaces and, from thence, to the drone-backed ‘Labouring And Resting’ with Murphy’s ambient score and Polwart’s description of the geese migration from whence comes the album title, the accompaniment capturing the sense of the wind and the sound of wings.
Backed by bass and a circling acoustic guitar psattern, the seven-minute ‘Tyrannic Man’s Dominion’ is a slight melodic reworking of ‘Now Westlin’ Winds’, Robert Burns’ ecological tract about bird shoots with their “slaughtering guns”. Whispering the introduction, backdropped by sanusula chimes, the spoken ‘Place To Rest And Mend’ builds to a military tattoo march beat and wordless chant as she pays tribute to Soutra Hospital, a charitable medieval Augustinian hospital that once stood on the edge of moor and, providing sanctuary and protection, served as a prototype of today’s NHS.
Opening with a sung lyric about motherhood against a single repeated piano note, ‘A Benediction’ gives way to a spoken narrative that describes Roberta watching Will who, in transpires, is carpeting a crib for the impending baby, Another spoken introduction about Roberta discovering a smashed swallow’s nest and the dead or dying fledglings sets the scene for the six-minute plus ‘Small Consolation’, focuses her thoughts on her own upcoming birthing, a meditation on the fragility of life giving way to the revisiting from her 2004’s Faultlines album with its echoes of Sandy Denny.
The sound of a barn owl both gives rise to the title and heralds the musically dramatic, dissonantly percussive ‘White Old Woman Of The Night’ as the contractions begin with lyrics that intermingle with Polwart’s recollections of her own troubled childbirth as it flows in the wheezing drone of medieval ballad ‘Sphagnum Mass For A Dead Queen’ (itself previously on 2007’s Fairest Floo’er as ‘The Death of Queen Jane’) about Jane Seymour’s tragic childbirth with its disorienting Latin chants and list of cures
The glacial 90-second foreshadowing of ‘Lullaby For A Lost Mother’ picks up the medieval notes with harp and birdsong counterpointing the tragedy in the voice of a child recounting the scene around Fara Flow to her departed mother, but then ‘Remember The Geese’ strikes an optimistic, uplifting not as she returns to the opening setting, drawing together and linking the threads of the metaphor and imagery as, in the spoken mid-section she warns of the weather growing darker daily and a fierce wind, reminding that we are “a human skein and we’re not going to make it on our own.”
In ‘Molly Sime’s Welcome To Salter’s Road’ the spoken narrative brings the pregnancy to a bittersweet end with Roberta’s daughter, Molly, born and the image of Will tending his wife only for her to bleed to death, she taken away by her family for burial, he taking an axe to their bed and the back room floor and throwing the wood and bloody linen on a pyre to “let the world burn.” Midway through, the final chapter of the story is interrupted with a revisiting of ‘Salter’s Road’ from 2012’s Traces, its line about the horseman’s only daughter suddenly bringing home that, for those unaware of the background, this isn’t some fiction, but the true story of one of Polwart’s former neighbours as she relates visiting the elderly Molly in hospital, on the last day of her life, with her own son. At once the project’s theme of thread that connects us is brought into heartbreaking focus and the album ends as it began, at dusk, with the moor cock calling and the sound of a heartbeat, its final words the song’s title and the album’s overarching message, ‘We Are All Bog Born’. Quite magnificent.
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Artist’s website: www.karinepolwart.com
‘Labouring And Resting’: