It’s long been the case that you don’t come to Clarke and Walker for background music or cheeriness. Their music is sparse but intricate and you have to work at it. It is also almost inevitably suffused with melancholia, delivered at a pace and tempo to suit the mood. But they always deliver and the effort always pays off.
That said, the opening track here is, in their terms, positively thrash, the electric guitar riding a rolling melody and even breaking out into a reflective solo on a lyric littered with images of failure and struggle, but then, having talked about looking foolish and how “no one came to see me play” (a reference to an actual gig while touring in America), there’s an unexpected last verse refusal to give in as Clarke sings “you wouldn’t trade it for all they’d offer you. You sing and play and make things for that is all that you can do”.
The album’s highly autobiographical in addressing the highs and lows of following music as a career, the costs it exacts and the precariousness off it all, and the sentiment of that final line is echoed in the last line of the next song, ‘Bells Ring’, an otherwordly ambience of tinkling bells, piano (courtesy Kit Downes) and jazzy muted brass in a song that uses the alternate rings of two bells as a metaphor for a relationship, the pull and the longing, the sweet and sad, but ultimately “all we have.”
The jazzy tones here permeate the album, particularly evident in Walker’s meditative guitar work on the hope and potential-themed title track, the smoky late night vibe of ‘Tender Heart’ built around Downes’ piano and Ruth Goller’s double bass, the weary relationship breaking apart sway Ghost Light and the classic jazz trio feel of the mortality imbued ‘Sad Day’, Clarke’s vocals taking on a breathy torch-like quality like a young, more innocent Billie Holiday.
Not that the folk colours are any thinner. The simple slow piano waltz ‘Maybe I Won’t’, a song addressing the possibility or not of motherhood, conjures the plaintive ache of Sandy Denny circa Like An Old Fashioned Waltz while the existential crisis of ‘All Is Myth’ is simple voice and guitar, gently caressed by violin in the final seconds.
But, the point is that this finds them painting using an altogether bigger canvas, flexing rather than forsaking their palette. Inspired by Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘The Calvary Cross’, ‘Things Of No Use’, one of only two co-written numbers, takes on a more expansive production with powerful drums making their presence felt behind the sax, guitars and backing vocals, while, with its wearied waltz notes, ‘Bathed In Light’ has a minimalist, retro, almost early 50s feel to it, as she returns to the musician’s nightmare that “I’ll write everyday but no one cares what I say. That I’ll stand and I’ll sing but no one will be moved to join in.” The final crushing realisation “that I’ve lost all I’ve got”, deliberately counterpoints the closing words of the opening number.
Nonetheless, it ends on a final more resolved refusnik note with the folkier strains of ‘Only Me Only’, strings, bass and piano the waves on which Clarke’s carried on an introspective songwriter’s confessional lyric about being “ever to burrow but never to hide”, of “the left of the living in suffering song” and “the scratching thorn in my side” , and how, when the dawn is done and the birds have taken wing “it’s only me singing the only one.”
Clarke says that, after the disappointing and disillusioning commercial success of the last album and the experience of playing to an empty room in Chicago, she and Walker approached this as if it might prove their last album, taking soul searching chances both musically and lyrically. Far from the end, this feels just like it’s just the beginning.
‘Chicago’ – official video: