Seldom has heartbreak sounded so beautiful. And so positive. Heidi Talbot sings it for a lifetime.
Release date: 20th May 2022
Format: CD / digital
It wouldn’t be the first time that the break-up of a significant relationship has brought forth a fount of inspiration, and honed existing talents, and here it is happening again. Dreadful though this may be for the individual, once again it is the listener who benefits. One always hopes that the process brings some therapeutic worth to the artist, and I wish both Ms Talbot and her erstwhile husband well. For Heidi, until recently, has been wife of John McCusker, as well as being a celebrated singer in her own right, with happier times seeing them produce a joint record, the 2018 EP, Love Is The Bridge Between Two Hearts, as well as he appearing on several of her earlier LPs and she on his. With six full length albums behind her, preceded by a couple with the US based celebration of female Celtic musical tradition, Cherish The Ladies, she has quite a long track record, which includes also work with Adam Holmes (Rura, Magpie Arc) as Arcade, in 2019. Never, though, has she sounded so focussed and so forthright.
The original plan had been to up sticks to Louisiana, where her producer, Appalachian fiddle maestro and country music producer, Dirk Powell, was based. But you know what came along, and it became a fevered remote real-time session across the Atlantic, utilising the wonders of technology, 3000 miles and two time zones apart. A soundproofed room in an Edinburgh house replaced the cabin in the Bayou, Talbot also juggling visits from would-be purchasers, the house being up for sale. Banish any thoughts, thus, that this is a country record. OK, in part it is, and deliberately so, but there are also strong hints of a more resolute Americana, her team of, largely, locally based musicians adding a folk and even contemporary feel. For she has a wealth of musical expertise at hand. I guess the best known would be Mark Knopfler, her husband’s recent (current?) employer, his unmistakable guitar rippling across a number of the tracks. Then we have Adam Holmes, again, whose warm voice contrasts mellifluously with her own. Lush orchestration is courtesy the wonder that is Seonaid Aitken, whose name guarantees excellence, as any number of contributions to artists such as Blue Rose Code and Roddy Woomble can prove.
The title track opens proceedings, Talbot’s voice a high and pure instrument, perhaps not a million miles from that of Dolly Parton, with a little less quaver. Set to a pretty melody, it is a song of catharsis, the inspiration coming on a walk in the rain: “It’s building, rising, raging in you; I know that it’s the right time”. It sounds as if it was, the rest of the lyric being open to some interpretation, an interpretation that calls to mind Kate Rusby’s Bitter Boy, she being also another ex-Mrs McCusker. Mollie-Mae and Jessica, their daughters, add backing vocals. This is then followed by a gorgeous reading of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, a song much covered, and hard to better the bleak narrative of the original. Talbot’s voice is spookily fragile here, and adds extra poignancy, with Aitken’s arrangement of strings an exotic swirl. (That Aitken’s “regular” viola is no less than Patsy Reid shows the pedigree of performance on offer.)
Dirk Powell’s own Empty Promises Land follows, a classic weepy/song of hope that fits well into the mood. With Powell adding a darker duet vocal, it is carried by Knopfler’s dobro-esque guitar. I Let You Go then sears through, Talbot’s stark and striking song of farewell to her husband, any ambiguity entirely absent, so raw it is bleeding in its honesty. Alice Allen’s cello is a superb counterpoint to Talbot’s vocal and guitar picking, as is Holme’s restrained backing vocal, the rest of the string quartet sidling gently and unobtrusively in. “I Let You Go, You Let Me Down.” Ouch. As you reel from that, it may take a moment to recognise the next song, an exquisitely stripped-back acoustic take on Bob Marley’s She’s Gone, wringing all the pathos, and more, from this song. Beautiful, especially as the rhythm section chime in toward the end, Talbot’s vocal beseeching the refrain.
Songwriter supreme Boo Hewardine’s Let Your Eyes Get Used To The Dark, a new song written for the album, seems a little slighter, if only by the company around it, but is a well constructed, as ever, song of homespun wisdom, allied to a swaying back porch waltz. It is difficult not to expect Willie Nelson’s voice to come chiming out for There You Are, a hit for him in 1989, but, all credit to Talbot, she expunges that thought immediately, her tones a rare blend of all three of the classy trio of Linda, Emmylou and Dolly. Knopfler resonates away again, perfectly, a song that begs for return visiting. Wandering Roads, a song Powell wrote with Rhiannon Giddens, is next, underpinned by the organ of Guy Fletcher, another long-time Knopfler associate, and draws out the emotion in this further song of regret. Written originally for the final season of Nashville, the TV series, Powell adds also some nuanced fiddle that makes this song another highlight.
Broken Mirror, a Talbot/Powell co-write, finds us on the other side of misery, picking up the pieces and forging a road forward, through the metaphor(?) of pregnancy and a new birth. Set to some elegiac piano, Powell, and rolling percussion, Bill Smith, it stops all outside distractions, causing the listener to ponder on what is being said. Talbot may not be a prolific songwriter, but her three songs here, all with Powell, are exemplary.
The comparisons to Dolly being said, it is to a Dolly Parton song that the album next turns, via her When Possession Gets Too Strong, from 1970. An outlier, to some extent, in style and content, it is a refreshing change in mood, a sort of Nashville I Will Survive. A cajun accordion solo, bridging into fiddle, make for an attractive middle eight, each from the hands of Powell, showing quite how seamlessly this recording has been pieced together. Bring Me Home closes the project, with more of Knopfler’s ineffable guitar, the mood made automatic via his tone. A final Powell song, the string quartet are back to cradle the wistful vocal and the expressive guitar. It is quiet and reflectful: “Bring me home to where I’ve always been, though I try I can’t remember when I was home, I was home.” A never more appropriate way to end this extraordinary album. and whilst one wouldn’t with any further bad luck on Ms Talbot, if this is the outcome…….
Here’s that title track: