Based in Cambridgeshire, Williams is a fairly new arrival on the scene, releasing his debut EP back in 2018, gaining fulsome support from Tom Robinson, Our Blood Is Red being his first full-length collection. He’s been likened to Bon Iver, but to these ears he’s much more akin to Luke Jackson with his deep, slightly rasp vocals, the intensity of his delivery and the way he never tones down his accent.
Featuring the voices of the Sing For Joy! Choir of Cambridgeshire, he opens with an apology, the simply strummed ‘This Says’ with its self-recriminations (“I can’t take back the words I said to you/They’re buried by the weight of too many truths/But not about you”) and acknowledgement of self-destructive tendencies (“Amongst all the debris all I see is my own face staring back at me from every broken piece/This says nothing about you/It says everything about me”).
From a relationship falling part, he moves to one beginning with ‘Blood Jump’, perhaps the most immediate Jackson comparison, with metronomic percussion and Riad Abji on double bass as he captures the euphoria of new love (“You’ll never know the things you do to me/The way the earth bends under my feet/It’s hard to explain/Hard to explain the way you make me feel/It’s like life becomes realer than real”) with its reference to synaesthesia (“I start to taste colours and I start to see sound”).
It doesn’t last, however, and, underpinned with a haunted organ pedal drone and minimal fingerpicked, things are back among the debris with ‘What Is Left?’ with its partial nod to the album title (“unpick the stitches that hold me in place/My blood is red but you will not see it/And I’m wondering where this leaves us now/What is left of me?”) and a sense of being chewed up and spat out (“You separate every piece I’m made of/Till there’s nothing left and you can just move on/’Cause you don’t mind whether I survive/I was never more than a figure in the half light”).
But then, an obstinate refusal to be broken surfaces with the jittery driving ‘Vultures’, Nick Murray on viola, where he sings “I swear that if I pause to think/Then in the mire I will sink/But we can’t stop moving forwards or we fall/And watch the vultures take it all”, adding another lyrical reference to blood in “With our own blood we pay our way/And we bleed until our dying day”.
That undertone of social commentary is more obvious on ‘Take’, a cautionary number coloured with piano and cello about the cost of greed (“What will be the nature of the wilderness that we will leave behind?/Can we cut a path back to see the world reflected in their eyes?”) in a world where you “steal from your brother, lie to your mother and hide from your lover” and give nothing back.
Riding a circling fingerpicked pattern, ‘Off To Get Lost’ is about getting off the treadmill and escaping “The static that constantly rolls round my head”, just letting go and switching off from a world where “all we’re ever sold is sadder than sad and realer than real”.
Appropriately, it’s followed by the brief piano tinkling, synth swirling instrumental interlude of ‘And Breathe…’, returning to vocals for the shimmeringly lovely ‘Draw’ with its enigmatic lyrics (“You will now see in the rising of embers/The piece of your ego that you have long struggled to tame/And now it falls like rain/I will drink your mystery down/Till I can’t stay on my feet/Would you catch me if I fell or would you watch me returned to smithereens?”) as it breaks into a more percussive number with a barrage of handclaps and booming chords where he exhorts “Give us hope/A glimmer of light/An oil lantern on our darkest night” to find “the comfort that chaos can bring when we’ve lost our way”.
Featuring Liz Townsend on cello and more massed voices in the background, the unrequited love-themed ‘Punchbag’ shows Williams to have a wry sense of humour in the lines “I must have one of those faces that’s crying out for a fist in it/There must be a sign on my demeanour that says/Come on over you can treat me like shit”, echoing the earlier sentiment in “I’m just another scapegoat that you’ve found/And I’m not sure if I can go another round …Now leave me in your wake now you’ve had your fun”.
Again featuring cello, it comes to a close with, first, the reflective, loss-stained but apprehensive ‘Always There’ (“What I wouldn’t give to hear your voice again/But I’d be afraid of the words you wouldn’t say/That you might be ashamed of me”) that perhaps touches on issues of dementia (“When my mind starts to break and I confuse the family names and days of the week”), finally ending with ‘Monuments’ and its metaphor of a ball of wool, a number about legacy, what we leave behind and how we navigate the life we live (“We grow up around the best of our fault lines/But they’re shifting all of the time/And when you say we’re ticking along/You are so right, we’re like ticking time bombs/Just praying that nothing goes wrong”), that veins the pessimism (“it won’t take long for us to mess this up/And it won’t take long for us to give up/And it won’t be long before every vow is broken”) with an acceptance that “We’re just people trying our best” and that “We should be more kind, live a little less violently” and remind ourselves of how close we are to everything falling apart.
Our Blood Is Red is a truly auspicious debut announcing the arrival of a luminous new talent, bright new blood to keep the heart of English folk music beating.
Artist’s website: www.lukejameswilliams.co.uk
‘Vultures’ – official video: