The Ballad of Andy Jacobs: Kathryn Roberts sings a sad story with a soaring voice
Three songs at the core of Hidden People, the eagerly awaited new album from British folk dynasts Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, epitomise its sharp brilliance. It isn’t that individually, the surrounding numbers are lesser pieces. It is simply that the gathering sense of an extraordinary listening experience reaches its peak through a trio of story songs that in different ways, showcase the musicianship of Roberts and Lakeman, the lush and plangent arrangements that burnish the album without blurring the clarity of the narrative lyrics, and the range of influences that make it impossible to categorise Hidden People merely as a folk record.
Each of these songs – “Hang the Rowan”, with its witch-like promise of revenge woven into a compelling hook of a melody, the aching beauty of “The Ballad of Andy Jacobs”, with Roberts’ glorious voice rendering the disintegration of a soldier’s marriage almost unbearably poignant, and the mystic fatalism of “The White Hind”, bathed in shimmering production values – in some way exemplifies the record’s potent mixture of the poetic and the prosaic, of timeless tales and modern twists, of violence and passion.
The clues are all there in the first songs on the album, which take us from a bleak Nordic landscape (“Huldra”), announced a cappella before Swedish sisters Baskery chime in, to America (“Oxford, NY”) before bringing us home for a more traditional three-time folk ballad about an ill-starred love affair sparked at the village fair (“Money or Jewels”). Throughout, soaring vocals and tight harmonies, graced with contributions from the likes of Cara Dillon, Sean’s brother Seth, Dave Burland, and Caroline Herring, add ear-catching nuances so that Hidden People yields new treasure with each repeated listening.
Things take a bluegrass turn later, with the story of “Lusty Smith”, and the skiffle beat that announces “Standing at the Window” gives a hint of the influence of the five years that Roberts and Lakeman spent touring the States with Equation before they settled back in Devon to raise their family.
So this, in some respects, is a ‘comeback’ album for the husband-and-wife duo – and particularly for Roberts, who has been enjoying the distractions of motherhood, which might make the noir-ish atmosphere of much of the lyrical content somewhat surprising. She admits to a preference for musical edginess to balance the comfort of her home life, but even after plenty of sturm und drang, there is still space here for the contemplative peace of “The Wisdom of Standing Still”.
Lakeman has spent the time buffing up his considerable talents as a producer, and the layered sounds of Hidden People – so full of unexpected moments (a bouzouki and a mandolin jostle for attention with guitars, Roberts’ keyboards and woodwind) – amount to a sonic tapestry so skilfully woven that it never threatens to overwhelm.
Reviewers need to keep the records moving on, but this one is going to be hard to shift from my MP3 player. As a set of individual, beautifully-crafted songs that amount to a highly satisfying, holistic piece of work, Hidden People is up there with Gretchen Peters’ Hello Cruel World as a contender for my Album of the Year.