If you’ve ever wondered what the sound of a Small World Turning is, Thea Gilmore’s first album in two years has the answer. It’s furious, witty and socially astute. It’s maternally fierce, compassionate and tender. It’s a state of the nation address. It’s a call to arms.
A sense of urgency pervades the album, as darkness skulks around the periphery. The premature fade-out of an intimate, bathroom-echoey, a cappella rendition of traditional lullaby, ‘Mockingbird’, opens up an unsettling sensation of loss. Later, the intensely lovely, bittersweet piano ballad ‘Karl’s Lament’ confirms our fears, “somewhere there are crosshairs on a mockingbird”. Listener, there’s trouble at t’mill.
Fortunately, Gilmore’s songwriting is on searing form, tackling cultural commentary with biting precision. Oxford’s notorious ‘Cutteslowe Walls’ provide the perfect allegory for the country’s ever increasing rich/poor divide, ‘where there’s a line at the foodbank, where they’re handing soup to the boys on the floor, where sleeping bags are blocking doorways, you’ll see the shadow of the Cutteslowe walls”.
That song’s brightly toiling percussion, suggestive of the kind of manual labour seen in the area’s once-booming car industry, is typical of the glove-snug fit of the musical arrangements – with a generous roster of artists including Sam Lakeman and Ciaran Algar making significant contributions. This review copy is light on detail, but Seth Lakeman’s distinctive fiddle graces the ominous ‘The Loading Game’ and Cara Dillon’s Irish whistle coolly pierces the warmth of countryish ballad, ‘Don’t Dim Your Light For Anyone’.
Brimming with fury, the fiercely spat out, heavily sardonic ‘Glory’ condemns media manipulation and fake news with its “welcome to brand new history”, much as the skronky angularity of ‘The Revisionist’ takes angry aim at right wing ‘populists’ – whilst also perfectly demonstrating the power of a well-placed Oedipal insult.
Shuffling percussion and chain-gang vocalisations lead the bluesy, pro-migration ‘Shake Off Those Chains’. A mariachi-style trumpet might suggest Mexico, as might the border-crossing closer ‘Dreamers’. This final lullaby appears to bring the album full circle. But its melodic echoes of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ plus Egan Stonier’s lamenting, Irish-style fiddle make it more uncomfortable than comforting: more Cormac McCarthy than AA Milne.
Even the vibrant ‘The Fuse (Let It All Come Down)’ – perky tv-jingle meets the gleeful sensuality of Kate Bush’s ‘Eat The Music‘ – bristles with uneasy tension. The Kinks-ish ‘Blowback’ swarms with suitably deceptive pubby jollity, as does the “the people’s reactionary”, a public-school educated millionaire faux ‘man of the people’. Insert name here.
‘Grandam Gold’ (a Chaucerian-era phrase for wealth hoarders) is the most obviously “folky” sounding, with Dillon and Gilmore’s harmonies sublimely delicious. But there’s no mistaking the message, “take up your arms and prepare for the fight, accept what is simple or defend what is right’. Pick your side.
This album turns an incisive female gaze on a small world that’s increasingly turning off-kilter. It walloped me right in the maternals and isn’t about to let go. A brilliant, necessary album for our times.
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‘The Fuse’ – lyric video: