His first album of new material since 2017’s Christmas-themed All On A Winter’s Night, River Of Dreams finds him in company with regular collaborators Paul Burgess, Dik Cadbury, Geoff March, Gareth Sampson, John Broomhall and Mick Candler for a collection of mostly original material, largely written during lockdown and, sung in his distinctive pure, comfortingly angelic voice, addressing themes of separation, fears, dreams and ambition. There’s also local Gloucestershire legend, kicking proceedings off with the traditional styled ‘The Bisley Boy’, a 16th century conspiracy that holds that, in 1542, to escape an outbreak of plague, the 9 year old Princess Elizabeth was taken to Bisley by her guardians, where she supposedly died at Over Court House, an old hunting lodge in the village of Bisley, her death covered up by enlisting a local boy (as there were no ginger-haired girls to pass off) to pose as the future Queen. Hence why she never married or had children.
A different local legend provides the inspiration for the cello-coloured piano-ballad ‘Song Of The Severn’, the river of the title, which, commissioned in 2020 by the Gloucestershire Police and Crime Commissioner for the opening of the Police Training Centre, Sabrina, the Latin name for the goddess of the river (Severn in English) who, as legend has it, was the daughter of King Locrinus, born to the woman whom he deserted his wife for and reportedly drowned by his ex after his death, though, as the infectious refrain “Let your soul roll with the river/Deep in her water you’ll be carried along/And on to the future go with her” has it, seen as a figure of hope rather than despair.
Turning to the songs engendered by the pandemic, first up, Ben Church on dobro, comes the melodically buoyant ‘Break Free’, a call for help and change that opens with an image of isolation (“Here I am so down and lonely now/Not a soul comes around”) and finding the courage to overcome your fears and chains and “push open that door”. Again featuring dobro, the melodically tumbling (almost hymnal) ‘Let’s Find A Way’ is another lockdown song, thinking back on better days and avowing “until the time I have you near/I’ll keep you in my heart”, offering the encouragement of “as we rage against the storm/Keep a rainbow in your heart”. Likewise comes the strummed and dobro accompanied traditional-framed ‘A Thousand Miles Away’ which deals with the trauma of separation, the verses variously speaking of ostracisation from family and refugees fleeing their homeland to find freedom, the song underpinned by the hope that “There will come a time when we’re all be back together”.
On a different note, Broomhall on brooding organ and Church on dobro, striking a somewhat Dire Straits feel, ‘In The Heart Of The War’ is a potent tribute to the men and women of the Special Operations Executive who worked in France during World War II, many giving their lives in the fight for freedom.
There’s four non-originals, although Coppin does provide music for ‘Long Summer’, a five and a half-minute bucolic folk setting of the poem by Gloucestershire’s Laurie Lee, a poet whose work he’s often interpreted, taken from the 1955 collection My Many-Coated Man and first set to music for his centenary in 2014 and subsequently rearranged in 2020 for Broomhall’s piano and extended coda. The second takes on the Americana of ‘When The Master Calls The Roll’, the story of about preserving the “union” and lovers tragically caught up in the American Civil War written by Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell but here given a more strummed English folk arrangement with Burgess on fiddle.
Burgess on recorder, it’s followed by ‘The Green Isle’ which, set to the sparse traditional Gaelic tune ‘A’ Choille Ghruamach’ and based on the piano arrangement by Irvin Duguid from a recording by Fiona J Mackenzie, features new words by Lincolnshire poet Alison Brackenbury about the rebirth of nature and changing of the seasons from winter to spring drawing on the mythology of Beira, the mother of all of Scotland’s gods and goddesses. And, finally, also on a nature theme, March again on cello, is the stately swaying piano-based ‘The Greenway’ by fellow Stroud singer-songwriter Jehanne Mehta, a song inspired by coming upon a grassy track while walking in Wales and about her feelings for the earth (“There is life in your heart when you walk on the greenway”).
River Of Dreams ends with two originals, ‘First Light’, a fingerpicked love song written for his artist partner Katharine Neilson, a yearning for the dawn after the darkness of the recent years and of love’s guiding light, and, finally, arranged for cello and piano again, ‘Dreams’ on which, declaring it’s not a personal song but a universal one about keeping a dream alive, he asks “Where did our chances go, who can say?/Now will we never know what we threw away”, a song that again chimes for the hope of emerging from the rain and seeing the stars, of rising above those that would keep us down as he ends “Don’t let them take it away/Don’t let our dreams fade away”. Up there with his finest albums, wade in and go with the flow.
Artist’s website: www.johnnycoppin.co.uk