EMILY BARKER – Fragile As Humans (Everyone Sang)

Fragile As HumansRecorded at 16th century Wool Hall in Beckington, Somerset, during a brief sojourn in the UK before she and husband Luke Drinkwater moved back to Australia, produced by Luke Potashnick, Fragile As Humans is Barker’s first album (if you discount Room 822, the 2022 hotel room lockdown covers set) in four years and one that, as per the title, speaks to the human condition. Recorded both solo and with Richard Causon on keys, bassist Tim Harries, drummer Tom Visser and Potashnick on guitars, it opens with very much a mission statement of intent, the slow, slouching rhythm of ‘With Small We Start’, a song inspired by her father tending his plants and vegetables, sitting in his leather armchair reading crime thrillers with a glass of red wine in the evenings, about being content with the simple things in life rather than forever seeking what you can’t obtain (“She’ll probably never live in Portland/with graffiti roses for a garden/but new stories form on the horizon/as she lets go of moving over there/Instead she walks her niece to school/ looks for swallows by the river pool/and learns when you’re not in a rush that tiny things can mean so much”) as she resolves to “try to sift out all my wants from needs/sort the mess out in my own backyard/light the future with this spark”.

Opening with a gathering drone before the acoustic guitar and double bass arrive, ‘Call It A Day’ is a reflection on the 21 years she spent living in the UK (“How long has it been since I put on paper wings/and flew on a whim to this fraught land?/Longer than I thought any whim could be caught/I never really had much of a plan”) and of deciding to return home to Australia (“There’s not enough to keep me here/my heart is with another sea/Oh it’s time for me to move on/it’s nothing that you’ve done wrong believe me”), a “goodbye to all of those who loved me through the lows” and “dear friends who’ve been my family”.

Anchored with a military drum beat, the layers building as it progresses, ‘Wild To Be Sharing This Moment’ is a reflection on the contradictions of the world in which we live “when love is endangered, denied”, and how we so often never look beyond our own four walls (“Isn’t it wild that we each hold an ocean yet fail to fathom other tides…How can we study the wounds of our history and still send our children to war”), ending with an optimism for the future in that “truth is a hope to hold onto and where it blooms we will go”.

‘Loneliness’ is about what it says on the label, solitude and isolation, stripped back to piano, strings, dulcimer, rumbling drums and an intimate vocal as she sings “Loneliness, your letter came/you know my house, you know my name …Everyone else seems surrounded/With people and purpose and things that ground them… Loneliness, I feel you breathe down my back, upon my cheek/Loneliness, I’ve had enough/of moving slow, I want a rush”.

A scuffed vaguely trip hop shuffling beat underpins the distant piano notes and sound effects of the equally hushed vocals of the introspective ‘The Quiet Ways’ (“Has this time misshapen me?/Budding branch on fallen tree/I’m not who I used to be”), a musing on the slow sometimes imperceptible changes our lives goes through but also the epiphany that “sad is sometimes beautiful”.

Sadness is certainly the emotional foundation of ‘Feathered Thing’ which, the title deriving from Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope Is A Thing With Feathers’, was written in the wake of a miscarriage, a grieving of an imagined future that is not to be (“It’s so hard to let go, wanted to know/wanted to know you/with my body I stand on the ashen floor/let go your hand”), the track starting out with tentative piano muted drums and building to a fulsome wash of strings and cymbals, a transformation from “ A tourist with some damaged goods” to “The quiet pause where dead ends burn/And new beginnings wait their turn”.

Aptly, it leads into the quietly fingerpicked title track, Barker playing a 1938 Gibson L37 archtop guitar, a song that speaks of how those we love shape the lives we live and the people we become (“My teenage heart once beat for a boy with a Bulls cap turned to the side/His sepia skin and his night-ocean eyes used to flood every shore of my mind/It’s true that he shaped me in ways I’m still learning – as if I were made of clay”), moving from shifting memories of the past to the solid foundations of the present (“Now I find myself moving steady on an island with the one I married by my side/And our roots seem to deepen with each day that passes…It’s true that he shaped me in ways I’m still learning – as if I were made of wood”). Given the title, thoughts of mortality inevitably arise (“My older self knows one day he won’t be with me there’s an order to life should it obey/And I’m daily reminded by those who left early”), but it’s aglow with joy rather than stained by grief.

As she sang earlier, sadness can be beautiful and, to prove the point ‘Sad Songs’ is a slow swaggering lope with a bluesy guitar break that, again roaming back through memories of the past (“What happened in all the years apart?/Used to have your photo in a heart/Fourteen, about to leave high school/Move to a different town/I thought time would stop without you around… You came back when we lost one of our friends/We wept for hours, thought it wouldn’t end/Drove to the Indian ocean walked out into the waves/We were seventeen and forever changed”) and addresses the therapeutic power of music to ease the ache (“Time moved on with the seasons throwing heavens in between us/Not then knowing the sad songs that would see us through the distance”).

Again echoing the title, accompanied by wobbly organ, the shuffling slow ‘Life Is For An Hour’ with its Beatlesesque psychedelic feel and images of “pencil loaded poised for all the words to come” and “Notebooks buried in a box beneath the bed/All the worries that he wrote but never said”, is a reflection on the inevitability of loss and change (“you can’t live a life without saying goodbye”) but also of not just letting it fade unspoken (“Love unlost, love unwind, oh don’t leave me behind without saying goodbye”).

If that takes its inspiration from the short life span of an insect, it ends with ‘Acisoma’, named for a species of dragonfly and, built around meditative piano with violin with her voice occasionally oscillating, takes the shimmering wings as an impetus to celebrate the beauty of life be the span long or short (“let me see through the lens of your life here you are, soon you’ll go…Can I lie about life never whispering death without lessening the breadth of here?/In the moss where the past and the perished find peace in the silence the answers are clear”).

A quietly ruminative and introspective contemplation on the mysteries, melancholy and beauty of life and the human experience in its spectrum of love, loss, grief, hope and connection, where, like this wonderful album, fragility is also an unbreakable strength.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.emilybarker.com

‘Wild To Be Sharing This Moment’ – official video:

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