JACOB & DRINKWATER – This Old River (Polyphonic Life Records PRCD001)

This Old RiverFollowing on from the Devon duo’s debut EP and 2016’s Live At Hope Hall, singer/guitarist Tobias Ben Jacob and Lukas Drinkwater (everything else) now release their first studio album, a collection of nine self-penned songs and their arrangement of one traditional number that weaves a melancholic mood but, as Cohen put it, with cracks where the light gets in.

Indeed, that’s exactly how it starts with ‘Song Of The Sun’, a melodically cascading dawn chorus as Jacob sings about how “the light pours in upon our golden slumbers”, waking to a new day amid the rhythms of the ancient English landscape, the lyric drawing on the folklore motif of the sleeping giant.

The title track strikes a note of nostalgia, Jacob recounting over Drinkwater’s piano notes and acoustic guitar, how, in 1934, the Lancashire town of Walton-le-Dale was witness to an aeronautical display by Royal Flying Corps veteran Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus, a jumping off memory to ride the time stream and recall the Lancashire cotton mills and their smoky chimneys, an image of industrialisation offset by lines that speak of breezes blowing through cornfields, of corncrakes and willow warblers singing as the song becomes a lament for the loss of such halcyon days to the march of technology.

The mood of reverie continues into romantic realms on ‘Real Love’, which, caressed by a bowed double bass, is both a yearning to find the grail the title offers and an openhearted pledge of devotion (“I’ll treat you right no matter what you heard/I’ll be someone you can believe in”) and offering a haven in troubled times (“you come to me with wounded wings/Lost and broken hearted/In golden light come gather all your dreams around me/We’ll be alright”).

In stark contrast, again with double bass as its pulse, ‘There’s A Shadow On The Sun’, Drinkwater also providing harmonies, was written after reading accounts of life in war-torn Syria sung in the voice of a man whose wife was taken from him in a bombing raid (“I held her hand I watched her die”), his heart, like thousands of others in the war torn country, consumed by darkness, leaving him and the Syrian people, to paraphrase Cohen, “a thousand sorrows deep.”

There’s a great sadness in this world”, sings Jacob resignedly in the closing refrain, leading appositely to ‘Nottamun Town’, a medieval English folk song, given a stark, funeral march arrangement (reminding that Dylan borrowed the melody for ‘Masters Of War’) with icy piano trills and reworked and additional lyrics to enhance its anti-war sentiments, the reference to longboats possibly a nod to the fact that, following their invasion of East Anglia, Vikings likely established a settlement in what would become Nottinghamshire.

Coming up the years, set to a ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ circling bass line, ‘Imagined Letter #4’ pairs a note to a lost love (“I rarely talk about you to my friends/Last week I thought I saw you coming down the stairs/How the heart sinks even as it bends”) with a commentary on increasing social alienation (“Everyone here seems so self-absorbed”) and the changing face of London (“they’re closing down the units and the old café/Sold them all to new millionaires…And nobody at the top seems to care”), Jacob’s lament echoing Elizabeth Smart (or maybe Ashley Hutchings) in the line “By Liverpool Street Station I sat down and wept.

But while “Maybe romance is dead as a theme these days”, there’s yet a glimmer of hope (“I still have my suitors so I must be lovable”) and even though “Time is the eternal boat/That carries all our dreams away”, he still calls to stand “weary wings unfurled”, “exercise the voluntary muscles of the heart” and, conjuring Dylan Thomas, to “oppose those dying days/Don’t let your spark burn away”.

Thematically channelling Steve Winwood, crooned over acoustic guitar and double bass, ‘Higher Love’ continues the album’s positive trajectory away from the darkness (“seven days in a line/Each one came to pass a little better than the last”) for, although “the heart is a fragile thing”, “we rise with the morning sun…distil the life and sing”.

Graced with the line “the air it quivered like the tuning fork of all creation”, opening with whistling behind the acoustic guitar notes, the summery, sun-drenched ‘Iridescent Light’, its choppy rhythm and vocals conjuring Paul Simon, is an untrammelled celebration of life (“I woke up laughing madly and I don’t know why”) with the dawn unfolding as a “symphony of murmuration/An undulation fluttering through the sky” , of optimism (“I said that this could be the day our plans all come together”) even in the face of depression (“I asked you if you’d be alright/You said I don’t know if I ever will”).

Given the Simon echoes here, it’s perhaps no accident that, while their pacings are completely different, slowly unfurling on Spanish guitar and double bass, ‘Polaroid’ kind of plays as their answer to ‘Kodachrome’ in its reference to photographs as memories, the song also a nod to the healing power of music (“I wanted you to know/The song you wrote it helped me out when I was low”) and, once again, drawing on the image of new dawns (“I awoke, kissed my sleeping wife/And fell into the open arms of this life”).

For all the gloom, despondency, pain and loss that cast their shadows, ultimately the album serves a reminder that, as the bowed bass and piano-accompanied, hymnal-like closing track with its oohing backing vocals says, ‘It’s Still A Beautiful World’ and that, while we may be exiles on life’s weary road, poor wayfarers and disaffected refugees, we still have the capacity to “listen for the ocean in the shell”, to balance “a pocket full of heartbreak” with “a headful of heaven”, to find comfort and refuge in another’s love, to feel the joy of a newborn child and know that while empires may pass away, “the sun will rise just like it did today.” Throw back the curtains and let this album illuminate the chambers of your soul.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.jacobanddrinkwater.com

‘It’s Still A Beautiful World’ – live: