The follow-up to Our Streets Are Numbered, one of my favourite albums of 2016, the Heslop family, songwriter Brenda, husband Geoff and daughter Jill, here joined by their other daughter Anna on piano. Just as past albums have addressed the 80s Miner’s Strike and social housing in former mining communities, Paper Dolls again draws on songs specially written for a social project, this time for Newcastle University and trauma associated with domestic violence. Brenda spent two months working with a domestic abuse survivor at a Middlesbrough women’s group, from which five songs emerged inspired by their stories, with a further four already written to stimulate discussions.
Brenda, accompanied by piano and acoustic guitar, opens with the achingly moving title track, a song about the widespread buy often unseen existence of domestic abuse with a chorus calling for the unity and solidarity of its victims/survivors.
Introduced by Jill’s accordion, the gently swaying, tenderly sung ‘Round And Round’ talks of the broken record nature of abuse and apology, the narrator finding the strength to break free of the cycle and reclaim her identity, “whoever she is”. With a slow mazurka waltz tempo, ‘It Comes Visiting’ again concerns the way historical domestic abuse traps its victims, the fear and helplessness always coming back, “washing my legs away” and keeping them in the ruins.
Dating back to 2009, accompanied by just guitar and with Geoff and Jill on harmonies, ‘It Couldn’t Last’ is a beautifully sad song of regret about broken promises and the emptiness that consumes when love is lost that sounds like one of the best things the McGarrigles never wrote.
A solo a capella number from Brenda, the stark, traditional-sounding ‘Living With A Stranger’ details the guilt those who suffer abuse often feel for not having had the strength to speak out and shine a light on their ordeals and the complicity of those around them, while, backed by piano and accordion and with a deceptively waltztime lightness, ‘Suddenly’ recounts how, sometimes, when the sun is out and you’re feeling good, just the sight of a couple holding hands or a picture in a shop can confront you with the reality of your situation, the sense of being alone with the horror film running in your head, and overwhelm you.
Again striking traditional notes, vocals backed by Jill’s accordion, Geoff’s harmonies echoing Brenda’s vocals, ‘Do Unto Others’ is another song about female solidarity, about those who have experienced the pain reaching out a hand to those others lost in a world of hate.
Echoing its sentiments, as the title suggests, again reminiscent of the McGarrigles, ‘When The Bad Is Past’ is a song of hope that, at some point, someone will recognise what is happening and reach out and the darkness will way to light.
A reminder that escaping from abuse is never easy and often impossible, especially if you believe you can’t, and how, even if you do, you can still end up broken, it ends with the resigned, mournful piano ballad ‘No-one Crying Over Me’ as, in what sounds like the emotional peak of an unwritten musical, Brenda sings “I’ve covered up/To hide my shame/And it’s broken me, I’m broken/Choking inside these chains, Fear is all there is, just like it always is.”
While I think that it might have been better to close on a positive note reflecting the support out there for survivors that can help lead to building new lives and new selves, this is unequivocally both an outstanding and important musical work that deserves to be heard and, more crucially, listened to.
Artists’ website: www.ribbbonroadmusic.com
‘Living With A Stranger’ – live: