Originally released as a limited edition for Record Store day and now given a wider distribution on CD and vinyl, The Somerset Sessions was recorded over 10 days late in 2020 at the Bert Jansch Studio in Frome, with Lakeman accompanied by drummer Ethan Johns, keyboard player Jeremy Stacey, John Smith on guitar and bouzouki, and bassist Nick Pini.
Four of the numbers are early versions of songs that would appear on Make Your Mark, these being a slower and more measured take on ‘Giant’, the keyboard drone intro and punchy strum of ‘The Hollow’ with its eco apocalypse imagery, pit closures lament ‘The Underground’ here with a resonating guitar intro, no mandolin and almost two minutes longer, and, marking little difference to the final recording, the funereal slow march of ‘Constantly’ with its theme of death, remembrance and being one with the earth.
This means that there are six previously unreleased songs, the first being the steady, plucked guitar ‘When I’m Gone’, an ageing tenant farmer’s lament for a new generation of inexperienced owners with little love for the land and traditions (“the old man passed away last year/now the boy controls the reins/his eyes are cold, manner blunt/not much care for the simple ways… He’ll see me off in life or death/and if I’m spared the best I’ll do/is staring out over a stranger’s land dreaming of a different view”), and the bitter knowledge that the only land he himself will ever possess is that in which he’s buried.
The passing of time, nature and the cost of progress inform several of the other songs too. Driven by skirling, pulsing fiddle, on ‘Days Ago’, chiming with the theme of ‘Underground’, he sings “darkened glimpses they all still remind us of all those days now, that used to be/the witnesses of sweat, and of the suffering” and how “here you’ll see their footprints appearing to mark the roots and every vanishing line/long lost faces they move in the distance/They wind their way back over time/rusting steel and sinking towers are all now headstones that bow to the dead/tell the tales and they trace through our history as we all move on, far ahead”).
Set to a slow march rhythm with bouzouki, again speaking of the hard times in working the land, ‘These Times’ conjures an image of ‘Horseshoes on a cobbled yard the clink of the harness chain and the slow and steady plodding trek, along a steep lane/the creak of shafts and spindled wheels and the wagons rolling” and how “His clicking tongue and moving arms, turn quicker through the gears/the reins and hands both leather brown, and worn beyond years/the man and horse now partners, bonded here as one/each leaning on the others strength ,to see their work done” .
The centrepiece of The Somerset Sessions, anchored by a melancholic chimed solitary guitar and spare fiddle is the six-minute self-explanatory ‘Season Cycle’ (“and in the cycle of the seasons/nature’s part, will fill your eyes/each time saying as it passes, fare thee well but not goodbye …sooner or later all leaves and mortals to their mother earth return”) with its theme of death replenishing life (“all these leaves are, dead or dying/still there’s work for them to do/in this rich soil, to the earth returning/buds in springtime, will renew”).
It closes with, first, the dark-hued folk rock of ‘Open Road’ with its discordant fiddle, scampering percussive rhythm and abrupt heavy flourishes, an ode to always moving on (“For forty long winters I’ve travelled tough/I have driven through the weathers both fair and rough/I never looked back or needed the rest only looking forward to the journey ahead”) and, finally, joined on vocals by Alex Hart, the spare, pizzicato fiddle-coloured ‘Go Your Own Way’ with its theme of parting (“you go your way I’ll go mine/along this dark and shattered street and we’ll tread our path of bitterness/like the dawn and dusk that never will meet”) and, again, the passing of time (“for many years now have passed away/in all those thousand’s days are done/have you gazed west as I turned east/I quickly mourn the setting sun”).
It remains to be seen if any of these find their way on to a new studio album at some point, but if not The Somerset Sessions is a valuable collection that captures a moment of time and interwoven themes in the creative process of one of the genre’s potent musical forces.
Artist’ website: www.sethlakeman.co.uk