Listening to The Brothers Gillespie’s third album, The Merciful Road, I found myself reflecting on why I love folk music. Of course, there are lots of reasons, but among them is a sense of place. In folk, it matters where a musician comes from, and it matters that James and Sam Gillespie hail from Northumberland. The Merciful Road is an album steeped in the landscapes of that beautiful county, and in their memories of growing up in the tiny village of Wall. If that’s not enough, it was even recorded in their grandma’s cottage, by the River Tweed.
Another reason for loving folk is the quality and intelligence of much of the song writing, and The Merciful Road doesn’t disappoint on that score. It’s intelligent, sensitive and poetic, raising questions in the mind of the listener. Much of the album is also very personal, with lyrics that defy easy explanation and only become clear on reading the sleave notes.
The best example of this is ‘Wingrove Road,’ with its gentle melody, and lyrics in which Mary, Jesus, Muhammad and Hanuman all appear, and are invited to take a walk past the bakery! Later, cheetahs and gazelles join in. Well, it might just be that I’m easily confused, but I struggled to make sense of it, until I read the notes. When I found that the village of Wenham, close to the Northumbrian coast, is being seen here through a prism of childhood memories and imagination it all fell into place. The divine and the mundane merge together in a series of vivid images, and this track became truly magical.
‘Wingrove Road’ is the second of eight tracks – seven written by James and Sam, with one traditional song. The opener – ‘Pilgrim Song’ – has a distinctly Americana feel, both in the tune and the harmony vocals. Inspired by a wild camping trip through The Luberon, in the South of France, it celebrates the joy of being alive on the road, and the kindness found there.
The Americana feel returns on the third track, the heavily blues inflected ‘Bird on the Bough.’ This beautiful and soulful song looks at pathways through dark times; “The heart is like a burning sun, the light pours down on everyone.” Life finds a way through. At least we hope it does.
On the next track, hope shines again in dark times. The Highland clearances, drove many from their land, and across the sea, including some of the brothers’ ancestors. ‘Great Aunt Katherine’ tells their story, as they travel first to New Zealand, then to Australia. All documented by the family historian, for whom the song is named. This has a more complex and instrumentally varied tune. Sam’s fretless gourd banjo appears – that’s not something you hear every day – and Mairead Kerr joins in on piano.
After a series of gentle melodies, ‘Descended’ has a quicker tempo, almost staccato at times. Elsewhere, it made me think of Mediaeval balladry, helped by Sam’s wooden flute. This is deeply rooted in the Northumberland Hills and tells of a campaign to keep the Hills of Wannie wild, by opposing the erection of a monument, proposed by a local landowner. I assumed this was a story about some hideous Victorian vanity project, like the Duke of Sutherland’s statue on Ben Bhraggie. In fact, it’s a contemporary story and the monument is a sort of giant metal shard, set to be erected in wild, unspoilt countryside. The precise location of this vanity project is Cold Law, an interestingly shaped elevation, known locally as Tit Hill.
That vision of England, as a place where rich men can put up monuments no one has asked for, in cherished landscapes, leads on nicely to ‘Albion.’ This is a love song to England, still beautiful but beleaguered. Not surprisingly, it has a sombre feel.
‘When Fortune Turns the Wheel,’ is the only traditional song on The Merciful Road. It’s a Borders parting song, with similarities to ‘The Parting Glass,’ but longer and with a parting that seems to be less final. It’s a nice setting, with some good clarsach playing from Siannie Moodie, who also contributed to the arrangement.
All of which brings us to the final track – ‘The Endless Road’ – a song in grief and praise of interconnectedness and belonging. There are some dark lines, dwelling on isolation and loneliness, but there is hope all the same; “Some sweet day, I will gaze on those beloved eyes again.”
Darkness and hope often interplay on The Merciful Road, and the brothers describe it as an album inspired by the grace of life in troubled times. And we’re becoming only too familiar with troubled times. This is an album from lockdown – deep, reflective, and exploring themes of place, family, belonging and life as a journey. Throughout, Sam’s and James’ vocal harmonies stand out, reaching sumptuous levels. In fact this is a rather beautiful album. Beautiful because of the music, of course, and also Gemma Koomen’s artwork on the sleeve, which definitely deserves a mention. Once I finished reflecting on folk music, I decided I’d like to walk in the Northumbrian Hills again, and soon.
Artist website: www.thebrothersgillespie.com
‘Wingrove Road’ – official video:
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