I enjoyed Kathryn and Sean’s previous album mostly on an intellectual level. Whatever they have been doing since has had an energising effect – perhaps Kathryn’s experience with Fotheringay has something to do with it – but Personae absolutely bubbles with energy and a sense of fun in the choice of subjects to write about.
The set opens with ‘The Knight’s Ghost’, a ballad of tragic death and spectral visitation. This is glorious, pure folk-rock with a guest appearance by Sam Kelly and the album can never look back from this point. Now the gentle, thoughtful ‘Independence’, about the relationship between mothers and daughters, stands as a contrast to its boisterous predecessor. Comparison has been drawn with Kate Bush and there is something in that and with hindsight there is hint of Sandy Denny in the melody. ‘Tribute Of Hands’ is another original about the founding of the city of Antwerp. You may ask why until you hear it – what a great story. Sean’s guitar leads here as it does on the opener.
Next is the album’s only cover, Sandy Denny’s ‘Solo’. Kathryn starts almost in imitation of Sandy with just piano until Sean’s acoustic guitar joins in but as the song builds she makes it her own. ‘The Poison Club’ is a light-hearted ragtime tribute to various popular narcotics but the chorus carries a warning, “once you’re a member you’ll never have enough”. We are back in history for ‘The Street Of The Cats Who Dance’, another fairly gruesome tale.
The other traditional song is ‘Boney’s Defeat’ which, under a variety of titles, has recently regained popularity. It’s a favourite of mine and Kathryn’s multi-tracked unaccompanied vocal is a tiny tour de force. With a knowing smile, I’m sure, they follow it with ‘Old, Old, Old’, the story of St. Helena’s oldest inhabitant, a giant tortoise. History missed a trick here as Napoleon died a decade before Jonathan was hatched. Finally we have the very Denny-ish ‘Goddess Made Flesh’. It meditates on artistes who died young and, though you can draw parallels with Sandy’s fate, for my money Amy Winehouse is a more realistic inspiration.
In my humble opinion, as they say, Personae is Kathryn and Sean’s best work to date.
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‘The Knight’s Ghost’ – official audio: