In 1908, five Shetlanders joined the crew of Clyde-built 4-mast sailing barque, the Springbank, headed via the dread Cape Horn to Mexico. For Barry Nisbet, this boyhood tale (storyteller Lawrence Tulloch is generously sampled) has more personal connections. For Shetlander Nisbet has also sailed these same Pacific seas. It’s what elevates his second solo album, The Springbank Voyage – in any case a logical marriage of his passions for music and sail – to a greater profundity of emotional resonance.
Musically, the album is richly textured, with Nisbet’s warm vocals and guitar/fiddle imaginatively supplemented by artists including Ellen Gira (cello), Theo Barnard (guitar), Pepita Emmerichs (mandolin), Ade Dacre (drums), Stephen Jack (bass), Eilidh Grant (vocals), Harry Bird (backing vocals), and Miriam Iorwerth (marimba).
Nisbet’s unwavering sense of place includes extensive use of Shetland dialect and the Cullivoe fiddle style (ADAE tuning & lively bowing). It’s what helps weave regret and anticipation into ‘Affrug’ (‘backwash’) as the sailors leave home, and also the curling, looping optimism of ‘Fair Isle Channel Set’.
His songwriting is visually compact, too: seabirds described in tender detail, an apprentice “sent to fetch a bucket of steam”. ‘Iron and Canvas” economically suggests the Springbank’s strength and vulnerability as it arises gracefully from Clydeside’s industrious brutality where “a brand new ship launches on every fourth tide”.
As the ship is laden, the captain’s wife ‘Hannah Dreams’ of life at sea, an impatient liberty also extolled in the remarkable ‘Fly Free’, with its female vocal soaring high into the chorus, like birds cresting thermal currents.
‘Nerthus’, its central fiddle part equally hopeful and fearful, as “the waves grow to monsters, south of Cape Horn”, is awed by the sea’s might, as is ‘Cape Horn Set’, whose restless dark fiddle motif mirrored by guitar and mandocello is finally overwhelmed by the vivid insistent skitter of the second tune.
Yet it’s ‘Not Violent Seas’ that claim a life, but sickness, as played out by a sensitive fiddle theme interrupting stormy drums. As the mournful crew round ‘Into The Pacific’ rites for burial at sea are sorrowfully conducted in ‘Waters Rising’.
Calmer waters (in all senses) are reached with ‘Bittersweet Landfall / Slip Da Anchor’ and the beautiful, upward spirals of ‘Santa Rosalia Sunshine’ encapsulating the journey’s sorrows and joys. But one journey’s end is only the beginning of the next, so ‘On Sails Da Barque’, (to Canada and Australia, and Hannah losing her life, too), as the final shanty-ish chorus reminds us.
Like all the best stories, The Springbank Voyage draws out the universal from the specific: here it’s the ambivalent complexity of our relationship with the sea. Emotionally bittersweet and rich in historical detail, Barry Nisbet’s second solo album is a clear labour of love, and an artistic tour de force.
Artist’s website: www.barrynisbet.com
‘Iron And Canvas’ – live: