Once in while a record comes along and leaves you speechless which is how I was when I first played Blackletter Garland. Let’s start with some facts. Hack-Poets Guild are Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann supported by Barney Morse-Brown, Lawrence Hunt, Pete Flood, Meraud Fergerson and Gerry Diver who also produced the album. If you’re familiar with Gerry’s work you’ll know to expect the unexpected and his influence is unmistakable, although it may be more accurate to say that he gave the singers licence to follow their instincts.
The question of what we’re listening to is resolved over the course of the record. Some songs are written by the group, often inspired by old manuscripts, and the rest come from broadsides and similar sources. Only one song is in any way familiar but several concern preoccupations of traditional songs. The first track by Marry Waterson is a gory description of the fate of a murderer strung up in a gibbet. It begins with some treated instruments, just a few seconds, just enough to make you check you have the right CD in the player.
‘Daring Highwayman’ is sung by Lisa Knapp almost as a rap and it’s significant that our “hero” ends up in Newgate. If you’re looking for happy endings, look elsewhere. ‘The Devil’s Cruelty’ is the first song by Nathaniel Mann, a chunky arrangement of a broadside which recounts the story of a suicide although no explanation is offered. Marry Waterson’s ‘Laying The Ghost’ is a story of priestly failure accompanied by Diver and Morse-Brown’s strings and Lisa Knapp’s ‘The Birds Of Harmony’ is the nearest we’ve got to a traditional song but it’s mostly allegorical, I think. Lisa’s voice is deliberately thin, laid over an accompaniment by Diver, Morse-Brown and Hunt. It’s the strangest song here.
‘Hemp & Flax’, sung and mostly accompanied by Nathaniel Mann, is a second cousin to ‘The Treadmill Song’ and I’m only surprised that it hasn’t been developed before this. ‘Something To Love Me’ is relatively straightforward but given a jazzy feel by Marry Waterson, coming as a stylistic surprise. ‘Meat For Worms’ is the dark reflection of ‘The Life Of A Man’ and much less cheerful.
‘The Troubles Of This World or Nothing Cheap But Poor Men’s Labour’ makes one wonder why nothing has changed since this broadside was written. It’s a less cheerful take on the story laid out in ‘Hard Times Of Old England’. ‘Rare Receipts’ is a sort of sinister version of ‘The Lovers’ Tasks’, a recipe containing such impossible ingredients including the eyes of a phoenix and the wool of a lobster. It’s supposed to make a love potion, perhaps suggesting that such a concoction is impossible, or that love is. ‘Be Kind To Each Other’ is another adaptation by Marry Waterson and finally we have ‘Cruel Mother’ bringing us at last to something familiar.
Blackletter Garland presents us with a number of unfamiliar songs presented in a variety of styles. It’s dark and brooding but after a couple of plays you’ll be hooked. Don’t lower the lights, though. This is another album of the year and it’s only March.
Artists’ website: https://hackpoetsguild.com/
‘Daring Highwayman’ – official video: