Shirley Collins: Lodestar review – austere, foreboding music from long-silent singer

She hasn’t released an album of new material since 1978 and hardly sang for 30 years – but now Shirley Collins is back with songs full of the stark strangeness that made her early work so powerful

The most immediately shocking thing about Shirley Collins’ seventh album is that it exists at all. Collins may be one of the folk revival’s most revered song collectors and vocalists, but for more than 30 years she was famous for not singing at all. She last released a new album in 1978, by which point her voice was already, she claimed, “letting her down” in the wake of a messy split from her husband, fellow musician Ashley Hutchings. “My voice got damaged, my ego got damaged, and my heart and everything,” she said, years later. “And I stopped being able to sing.”

The same year, during a performance of Lark Rise at the National Theatre, she opened her mouth to sing and nothing came out: she was later diagnosed with dysphonia, and retired from performance. That, most observers assumed, was that, but most observers had reckoned without the apparently fathomless powers of persuasion possessed by David Tibet, mastermind of experimental folk group Current 93 and something of a past master in encouraging lost esoteric artists – ranging from falsetto-voiced late 60s oddity Tiny Tim to wildly obscure krautrock band Sand – back to the spotlight, or at least something approaching it. He reissued her old recordings and enlisted Collins into Current 93’s remarkable rotating cast of collaborators, which also includes Björk, Andrew WK, former Crass frontman Steve Ignorant and experimental doom metal band Om, first to perform spoken-word pieces, then to sing, then finally performing a brief support slot at a 2014 London show, her first live appearance in 35 years.

Collins’ performances at the Current 93 gig and live appearance during her 80th birthday celebrations at Cecil Sharp House in London were rapturously received, but understandably a little tentative in tone. That sets them at odds with Lodestar: the second shocking thing about the album is how little it sounds like a one made by an 82-year-old who last recorded an album when Jim Callaghan was prime minister and Boney M were the biggest-selling band of the year. From the off, Lodestar is a strikingly confident and uncompromising album. The opening track features four different pieces of music: Awake Awake is filled with dire presentiments, images of rotting flesh and visions of imminent apocalypse – “repent, repent, sweet England, for dreadful days are near” – and bisected by a droning, ominous hurdy-gurdy and pipe instrumental by Ossian Brown, once of Coil, latterly one half of Cyclobe. It morphs into a May carol that carries the ineffable suggestion of something sinister lurking behind the good wishes, and finally into a sparse morris dance, complete with jangling leg-bells. The latter is perky and possessed of a pretty tune, but still feels oddly melancholy, as if the darkness of the track’s opening has somehow seeped into it.

There are flashes of levity – Old Johnny Buckle ends with the sound of Collins laughing – and of limpid beauty: the tune of the old Cajun song Sur le Borde de L’Eau is implausibly lovely. But for the most part, the songs Collins has chosen for Lodestar paint a picture of a brutal, bleak world, where forgiveness is thin on the ground, but violence and death are ever-present. Indeed, Lodestar’s songs’ body count would startle a Norwegian death metal band. By my calculations, there were at least 11 fatalities – including two infanticides – in the space of three songs and nine minutes alone: the old girl keeps knocking them off with the casual amorality of a gangsta rapper. After a while, the listener develops a kind of all-pervading sense of foreboding. “Said to the lord to his lady, I am now going out,” sings Collins to an accompaniment of acoustic guitar and birdsong recorded in her back garden, and immediately you think: uh-oh. Two minutes later, your worst suspicions are confirmed: “There was blood in the kitchen, there was blood in the hall / There was blood in the parlour where the lady did fall.” Occasionally, the content of the songs makes you boggle a bit, not least The Rich Old Irish Lady: woman spurns romantic advances of doctor, falls gravely ill, doctor arrives but refuses to treat her, informing her instead that he’s going to dance on her grave. The End – save for a blackly comic burst of a wild traditional Kentucky fiddle tune.

This should all be heavier going than it is: that it isn’t is at least partly down to the arrangements, which are largely based around acoustic guitar and subtly effective throughout. Moreover, they fit Collins’ voice, which has weathered considerably in the years she kept silent. But the new patina suits her, and the material. For one thing, Collins was always a stark, austere singer – she had harsh words for any vocalist who tried to impose their own personality on traditional material – and now she sounds more stark and austere still, closer to the field recordings of traditional singers made in the 50s and 60s. For another, her mature voice can eke out new meanings and inferences in the material: the version of Death and the Lady has a noticeably different hue to the one she recorded in the early 70s with her late sister, Dolly.

But in another sense, Collins hasn’t changed at all. In the late 60s and early 70s, surrounded by acid-folk bands nearly herniating themselves in an attempt to evoke an atmosphere of pagan oddness, she made albums that conjured up Old Weird England more effectively than any of them, using little more than the source material and her voice. Similarly, there’s been a lot of bands big on what you might call Wicker Mannerisms over the last decade: it’s tempting to say that none of them made music as strange and moving and haunting as that contained on Lodestar. Collins’ reappearance is remarkable in itself; more remarkable still is that she seems to have re-emerged with her powers undimmed.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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