Arborist – A Northern View: Album Review

Release Date: 7th February

Label: Rollercoaster Records

Format: Vinyl/CD/DL

In England, it’s often a point of contention where The North begins. For many south of the M4, ‘The North’ is a vague area of generic strangeness north of Gloucester. On the island of Ireland, however, it’s decidedly, historically clear cut. There’s a definite north. There’s a border and everything. Of sorts. It may or may not be a hard one. Ask the geezer in Number Ten. He may or may not tell you.

Arborist’s second album, A Northern View, raises the question of Northern Ireland’s troubled perspective. What indeed is the view from Belfast, looking eastwards to the United(?) Kingdom, southwards at a resurgent Ireland and undoubtedly looking inwards at its own identity?

The first thing you hear, and then can’t unhear for a long time after the album has finished, is McCambridge’s voice on opening track, A Stranger Heart. The whole song rings with conflicting agony and ecstasy. The colourful, sharp, jagged vocal (sounding like the most sober Paolo Nutini imaginable) is wielded like a self-defensive broken bottle. No sooner have the vocals cut through you with equal pain and beauty, atop isolated reverberating guitar and a quiet drumroll, like a distantly lurking storm, but the full band kicks in, taking you from isolation to lush comfort.

In the middle of the album sits By Rote, McCambridge’s most out-and-out mellifluous offering, his Harry Nilsson meets Martin Rossiter moment. In contrast, the prosaic monologue on Taxi, gilded by Emma Smith’s violin, stands out by its difference and by its poetics. It has an after-midnight, ‘charge your glasses and gather round’ sense of storytelling, recounting the tale of his father’s cousin, Henry and the claim that Henry wised Phil Lynott up to the idea of adapting a traditional Irish song into rock form.

With musical themes of Whiskey In The Jar in the warp and weft, dancing with McCambridge’s storytelling acumen, we traverse time and space, from Ballymena’s People’s Park, to a 1959 schoolroom with “Mr Scally…an old-school and barbarous disciplinarian,” 1960s Belfast with “the musicians and the would-be poets” and then Dublin, “amidst a steady flow of brimming pints,” where “Henry imparted his grand idea” to Thin Lizzy. Henry’s decline in the second half brings a bitter-sweetness to the song, before one glorious final sting in the tale.

You’re only ever a few bars away from the uncanny, the challenging or something ache-making in the region of your cold, cold heart. The closing tracks build to the brassy squall of a Jason Pearce Spiritualized composition or the beaten, cornered thrashing of early Radiohead. Can I Add You To My Will holds a half-empty glass, but hopes to top it up, after facing the truth that, “Love won’t bend just how we choose.” Listening to the title track, as it concludes the album, you feel you ought to stand up. It feels defiant, elated, celebratory.

The geezer in Number Ten signs Britain out of the EU on 31st January. McCambridge will have the curious perspective of having recorded this album long before the general election, but performing it on tour in 2020 in contrasting political times. Just when English people can go back to being polarised over whether they love or hate Marmite, the Northern Irish view surely feels more divided than ever over where they stand in the 21st Century.

Watch the official video for Taxi:

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