With her new album, Wrackline, Fay Hield takes a giant step in her exploration of folk music. It’s a record about crossing lines – a wrack line is the high water mark where the debris of the sea collects and it marks a barrier. Fay makes this explicit in ‘Swirling Eddies’, one of many original songs here, in which a selkie woman ignores all the advice she is given and crosses the line to walk on land. Fay describes her initial disorientation but her fate as she embarks on a new journey is not revealed and this song feels like the key to the record.
Musically, the step is not so big. Fay is once again supported by Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney and Ben Nicholls with Ewan MacPherson on jaw harp and vocals and production is again in the hands of Andy Bell. She does play banjo, however, which is relatively new.
So Wrackline is about crossing barriers: between the mortal world and the supernatural and between the human world and the animal. The first track, ‘Hare Spell’ does both. It comes from the confession of Scotland’s “Queen of Witches” who included a spell to turn herself into a hare and Fay also recounts her pact with the devil and her ability to transform into other animals. ‘Jenny Wren’ is a reflection on ‘Cruel Mother’ and the fate of the spirits of her children ‘Cruel Mother’ appears later – a version in which the dead babies forgive their mother, communicating across the barrier between life and death. The American children’s song ‘Aunt Rhody’ is revisited as ‘The Old Grey Goose’ with a mournful twist.
At the centre of the album is a long ballad, ‘Sir Launfal’, which is new to me. Fay has distilled this song from much longer piece in Middle English. Stories of mortals becoming involved with the fairy folk are not uncommon in the tradition and their interaction is not always a happy one but in many – ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘King Henry’ for example – virtue triumphs. So it is with ‘Sir Launful’ although his story is a particularly convoluted one. After this comes the record’s one aberration; a slightly discordant setting of ‘Pig Song’, popularly known as ‘The Irish Pig’. Fay – what were you thinking?
Fortunately, this is followed by further meditations on death and separation with ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’ and her own song ‘Wing Flash’, again with images from the animal world. Finally, ‘When She Comes’, with words by Sarah Hesketh, returns to the first track, this time told from the hare’s viewpoint. I can’t help thinking of Granny Weatherwax’s “borrowing” trick.
For all its melancholy, Wrackline is very enjoyable and if you think that makes me weird you could be right but I do like ballads with bite. Fay has blended her own songwriting with traditional songs and themes and if there are prizes to be had at the end of this strange year she would win one.
Artist’s website: www.fayhield.com
‘When She Comes’ – live: