Karine Polwart – Laws of Motion
Karine Polwart's latest album brims with new influences and new energy, and is all the better for it
It feels like a long time since we last had a Karine Polwart album – six years in fact, since Traces – but of course there’s been plenty from her in the interim: folk supergroup Songs of Separation, a collaboration with Lau’s Martin Green for his Flit project, and most notably her Pippa Murphy collaboration Wind Resistance, which gave us the SAY-nominated A Pocket of Wind Resistance last year. The shadow of all of this work looms over Laws of Motion, which brims with new influences and new energy and is all the better for it.
That said, album opener Ophelia has a feel of Traces about it. It’s a song that builds slowly and brilliantly, beginning just with Polwart and a sparse guitar figure, then one by one bringing in an immersive soundscape. It’s on the following song, Laws of Motion, that we get more of a sense of what the album is about – a spectral, brooding, rock and roll song that deals with the here and now; immigration, politics and movement are all summed up and bellowed out in the powerful coda of 'Who doesn’t want another chance?'
Unsurprisingly, Polwart’s affinity with birds is once again impossible to ignore. We hear the kittiwake’s song on Cornerstone, while Crow On The Cradle casts the bird as a soothsayer welcoming a newborn, and in The Robin the image of the bird is again front and centre.
The main shift on this album in comparison to previous work, and you feel that Wind Resistance has emboldened her to do this on record, is spoken word and storytelling. I Burn But I Am Not Consumed introduces us to Mary Anne MacLeod from Tong on the Isle of Lewis, describing how she emigrated to New York in search of a better life, and how her son – Donald Trump – returned to Scotland years later to build his golf course, literally changing the landscape which his mother left.
Polwart’s trodden this ground before on Traces' Cover Your Eyes, and indeed that song is directly referenced here. After its contemplative spoken intro the song becomes a more energetic, angry piece told from the point of view of the Isle of Lewis. It’s hard to sing such directly political songs without it sounding trite or didactic. Polwart’s skill is in finding the right lens through which to view the story, and indeed all stories. It's a tragic song, as it should be, but it’s also a hopeful one as echoed by the title. Lyrically profound, and musically inventive, it’s good to remember that as well as a theatre performer, activist, and fantastic interpreter of material both trad and contemporary, Polwart is also a songwriter — and one of the best we’ve got.
Listen to: Ophelia, I Burn But I Am Not Consumed