They say you only get one chance – this time I’m very grateful that I’ve had two. A couple of months ago a friend put Ray Cooper on about ten miles away from me and I couldn’t get to the gig because of a family event. Last week I got the chance to review the new album. Sometimes life just works. Between The Golden Age & The Promised Land is released on May 25th (though available already as a download) and is a delight.
The album is acoustic UK folk music, some cracking traditional and self-composed songs superbly played. But it’s a bit more as well. There is a big sound, more than you’d expect from an acoustic album. Before listening to the CD I looked dubiously at the line in the press release that made comparisons with Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash production; having listened I understand the comments, this album is simultaneously stripped back and grand. The title comes from Cooper’s reflection that, “The golden age and the promised land are the two great dreams. Both are exaggerations, probably, but nevertheless compelling. The dream of how great things used to be and the dream of how great they are going to be.”
The songs take us through these themes. ‘Drunk on Summer’ opens the album with a tale of youth, drunk on love and gin, drunk on summer in England. ‘The Unknown Soldier Has A Name’ is a self-explanatory title and Cooper comments of this mandolin-driven track that, “Like most soldiers in World War I [Private Fred Broadrick]’s golden age and promised land were probably the same”. The video link below takes you to the song.
‘Little Flame’ is written for Cooper’s daughter “Have your summer days and when you’re ready blaze……I really want to see you blaze/Little Flame”. ‘The Promised Land’ is a reminder to us that there is nothing new about boat people looking for a new and better life, even though they may not make it. East Europeans did this after the German and Russian occupations in the 1940’s just as those from Mediterranean countries take to boats nowadays “The human heart is beating free/On an open boat out there on the sea/From the fires of war and the desert sand/A distant shore is the promised land”.
‘Valentine’s Day’ is jaunty with a great chorus. It’s a song “for those who forgot the roses, again,” says Cooper (don’t you just love the word ‘again’?). It has mature lyrics about a tenth anniversary, lyrics which, like a couple who know each other well, manage to be both profound but not too self-absorbed, “It’s better the devil you’re knowing/Than the angel you’ve only just met”. There are two traditional songs – ‘Adieu Sweet Spanish Ladies’ and ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, the latter being a particularly powerful version of the song.
As a whole, the tracks composed by Cooper extend beyond traditional folk music to encompass other styles – there are elements akin to modern French chanson supported at times by almost classical music piano playing. There are no videos at the moment, but look out two songs in particular: ‘Love and Vengeance’ is a great story song, of “a wayward princess from old Beirut…..Singing songs of longing, songs of leaving home/Songs of Love and Vengeance at the midnight show”; for me, though, ‘The Golden Age’ is perhaps the best example of a track that includes these wider elements. It builds its lyric through contemplations of Venice, love and life – a broad, visual, lyric with simple piano and a tenderly sung tune.
Cooper is on tour in Europe currently with three shows in the UK in early June.
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‘The Unknown Soldier Has A Name’: