Recorded in Sweden in summer 2020, ‘Land Of Heroes’ is the fourth solo album from impossibly talented multi-instrumentalist Ray Cooper. Aside from supporting vocals supplied remotely by Rowan Godel, all the music is Cooper’s handiwork.
As the album’s title derives from Finnish epic Kalevala, there’s an unsurprising distinctive Nordic influence in evidence (including Finland’s national instrument, the kantele) and it’s wielded with the deftest of touches. Scandinavian music often counterpoints sweetness with darkness. So ‘Ilmarinen’s Ride’, a lively instrumental taken from the Kalevala, is both bright sparkling snow and icicle-sharp. The cinematic atmosphere of ‘The Burning Pile’, a memorial of 17th century Swedish witch trials, is like a Scandi Western: its Nordic chants and drums spread beneath a Morricone-esque harmonica drawl.
Scottish traditional elements are drawn on in ‘Canada Hill’, a stately, melancholy cello lament encapsulating the bittersweetness of loved ones leaving in the hope of better lives. What Scandinavians call “vemod”.
All these songs are stories, celebrating a diversity of heroes in addition to pondering more abstract concepts like death and nationalism. “Hero” can be a much overused and media-manipulated term, which often evokes a sinking feeling. But even as the rousing ‘We Need More Heroes’ will undoubtedly be a fist-pumping crowd-stirrer, there is an underlying sense that it’s in the reluctant or doubtful doer of the right thing that real heroism lies. The choppy accompaniment and poetry-recital delivery of the lyrics in ‘Whistleblower’ emphasises the bravery of journalists and others risking imprisonment or death to expose wrongdoing.
Somehow ‘Eyes Of Mercy’ just manages to swerve mawkishness in hymning the medical staff who continue to work so diligently, well past the point of exhaustion. Told from the point of view of a patient, comforted by a nurse’s presence, the tenderly riffling guitar motif seems to form an echo of the reassuring repetition of life-saving machines.
‘Circles’ is an emotional tribute to a friend and a reminder of time passing. Mortality is also contemplated squarely in ‘Dark Father’, a piano-based gem that would have fit seamlessly into Johnny Cash’s American Recordings.
The colonialist soldier hero of ‘Brave Wolfe’ in the traditional song seems to make for a queasy bedfellow with the ‘The Beast’. However, this polemic on the dangers of nationalism makes a sharp jab in folk’s direction, “The past should stay where it was / In ruined castles, old folk songs or buried in the ground”. Cooper may be a less directly acerbic lyricist than, say, Steve Knightley, but he certainly hits the target.
The slow piano and cello waltz of ‘Dark Sky Park’, gently closes the album, inviting us to look outwards, contemplate the stars, and the bigger picture.
This is a reflective album, very streamlined, indeed almost minimalist in that there’s nothing superfluous on it. It unshowily demonstrates Cooper’s top-notch songwriting and playing skills. The subtleties and warmth of it become even more apparent with repeat plays. Definitely do that.
Artist website: www.raycooper.org
‘Eyes Of Mercy’ – live in lockdown: