Based in Bath, conceived during the pandemic, former Radio 2 Young Tradition finalist and harpist, The Broken Road Back Home is the pure-voiced Crook’s fifth album, her first in five years, although some of the songs have been awaiting an appropriate home for a decade, recorded live in the studio, co-produced by Stuart Bruce and with Grammy winning drummer Rob Brian, guitarist Joe Coombs and Beth Porter among the musicians.
Digging deeper into personal experiences this time around but with universal resonances, it opens with the kind of title track, ‘Broken Road’, which, setting the pattern of catchy, radio-friendly melodies and chorus hooks, has a certain folksier Fleetwood Mac feel as she sings about the need for both personal (“Here beneath the fairytales we’re told/Just give me something that I can hold onto/Far above the rocks and clay/Hidden in the cracks of everyday/Tell me love will find its way on through”) and collective (“Well now’s the time we’ve got to get this right/It’s touch and go but I think we might/If we fumble for the light they stole/When there’s a mountain standing in the way/And you can’t believe a single word they say/We’ve got to stand for truth and justice anyway”) spirit.
A previous single, set to a circling fingerpicked acoustic guitar, ‘Battle Scars’ is a dreamy ballad about loving someone with all their baggage (“And you tell me you’ve got battle scars/And if I love you will I love the wounded parts/Somehow I’d forgotten in the chaos of existence/There is always something beautiful to see”) that again speaks of the spirit to rise again (“I’ve seen them stab you in the back, you take the fall, get back on track/‘Cos there’s something in your heart that always shines”).
Keeping the mood relaxed and pace slow, the organ-backed ‘Where Words Don’t Go’ where she echoes a young Eddi Reader, embraces a similar theme of understanding (“I’ve heard all your reasons but silence never lies/It begs me to believe what I can see within your eyes/So if you want to tell me what the heart can only know/Meet me in the place where words don’t go”), while the ethereal, atmospheric cosmic folk ‘Strange Red Sun’ with Porter on cello, pulsing drums and its shades of the early Mitchell and Amos is about what happens when we clam up rather than talk things out (“Reached out for you and where you lay and left in the middle of the night/With no words of love and no kisses to speak of, you’re tired, overworked/And you won’t let me in/Promise me something, you won’t let the hate win”), drawing on Ophelia from Hamlet as the final verse conjured the image of “The homeless, the faithless, the children, the friends/Walking the earth for a place to belong/When there’s nothing to hold but the love in your heart”.
The tempo kicks back up with recent single ‘Aftermath’ which, sounding like a non-Scottish Amy Macdonald, it’s fall-out theme pretty much summed up in the title (“when you’re crawling in the dust/And you’re clinging to the wreckage and the loss/Everything is broken, nothing’s making sense/Given where you find yourself who cares what they meant/There’s only devastation down a road to discontent/In the aftermath when you’re done with pretty lies/And the brutal truth surrounds you on each side/There is no explanation, just an avalanche of pain/You were begging for an answer, but the answer never came”) and the feeling that you won’t rise from the ashes (“They say the dust will clear and I’ll be stronger in the end …But I can’t see it under all the rocks that hit the path”).
The six-minute simply strummed, slow-building organ-backed ‘Paris Burned’, set in “the year before the star-man died”, is a more specific betrayal/break-up number (“I trusted you and heaven too/The moon, the stars, and all that’s true/And you, you never/ understood/Something sacred then got lost for good”) with lyrics that capture heartbreak in almost miscarriage imagery (“my miracle she grew inside/Until she slipped away one night/To be born into a different life/Where joy was still in season”) ending with a reference to the bridges over the Seine where “I see the ghost of Magdalene/A love lock and two hearts aflame/And Paris burned to cinders”.
The last stretch is relatively more upbeat, although still tinged with ambivalence. A soaring duet with Brent Jones, on ‘Brand New Day’ (“Life is good, life is fine”) she still sings “We misunderstood, we’re only human/Now the jury’s out on this heart of mine/Are we walking free or are we doing time”), while ‘Build A Shelter’ may declare “It’s a winter you’ll survive if your compass stays aligned/With the north star that lights up the dark/And when the change comes/As it always does/There’s everything to live for/when the world is knocking at your door”, only to undercut with the glass half empty “But we haven’t seen a soul round here for days”.
With a guitar solo from Coombs, things are more positive on the slow walking beat, organ-backed strum of the soulful, supportive anthemic hymnal ‘We Can Make It Home’ (“You tried so hard and you tried so long/To be everything to everyone/And you held on tight when most would run/Well, I’ll be there when it comes undone/And the wheel is turning in the sky/And you’re running out of places you can hide/When the past has fallen, and the fear subsides/I’ll be waiting, I’ll be by your side…let me be your one safe harbour in the storm”).
It ends, then, with the simple acoustic guitar and organ notes of the lovely, folk-soul ‘Lay Your Weary Head Down To Rest’ that espouses the peace after pain theme as she sings:
“It’s a rugged road you walk on
and you’ve made your mistakes
But a heart is seldom open till it breaks
And you say you’ve been dancing too close to the flames
Handed out heartache and you’ve drowned in the rain
But the love you were giving was your love at its best
So lay your weary head down to rest
Now your dreams take a tumble and you feel it’s the end
Well you trip and you stumble
but you’ll find your feet again
And you’ll stand at the doorway
with the strong and the blessed.
It may well be a broken road, but Crook walks it with a sure step and her head high to come home with one of the year’s best albums.
Artist’s website: www.jennifercrook.com
‘Aftermath’ – official video:
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