Listening to Shirley Collins is like being transported somewhere, both physically and emotionally. One of the true fountainheads of English folk music, her life story matches a thirst for traditional knowledge against an awareness of the possibilities that can spring from it. Retiring from music for three decades, her unexpected 2016 album ‘Lodestar’ was an incredible artistic success, crafting music that felt utterly out of time.
New album ‘Heart’s Ease’ has the weight of history behind it, then, but it’s a triumphant return to the muddy banks that surrounded the waters of ‘Lodestar’. With her voice carrying the experience of age – and, perhaps, residual effects of the dysphoria that so cruelly forced her initial retirement – Shirley Collins has rarely sung better, each word shimmering with the mirrored resonance of historical incident.
The oft-performed ‘Barbara Allen’ is given a wonderfully fresh re-working, while ‘Sweet Greens And Blues’ – a song she recorded with seminal guitarist Davy Graham in 1964 – becoming an act of literal time travel.
Songs such as ‘The Merry Golden Tree’ and ‘Whitsun Dance’ are ringed with a palpable sense of joy, while others – the retelling of a fateful Hudson Bay voyage on ‘Locked In Ice’ for instance – delve into darkness, transporting historical incident sharply into the presence.
There’s an overwhelming sense of the continuity of things running through ‘Heart’s Ease’, a sense that Shirley Collins is able to tap into some other, immortal Albion, some land just out of reach. ‘Rolling In The Dew’ has a silvery brightness to it, while ‘Tell Me True’ is marked by incredible empathy for the core text – both are marked by an almost extra-sensory intensity.
One of English music’s truly remarkable figures, the re-entry of Shirley Collins into the studio has already bequeathed us with some golden moments. ‘Lodestar’ was generally regarded as a career high, and – if anything – ‘Heart’s Ease’ matches these formidable feats.
At times easy on the ear, at others challenging – the drone-heavy ‘Crowlink’ is essentially Sunn O))) let loose in Cecil Sharp House – it’s a real banquet, a feat of folk re-contextualisation driven forward by the sharp emotional instincts of its formidable maker.
Words: Robin Murray
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