In the early part of last year I became aware of a track released as a single by Lucy Ward called For The Dead Men. It didn’t receive much in the way of fanfare and seemed a curious move in an era when only the latest digital download from the likes of Lady GaGa might amount to a hill of beans in singles terms. What chance was there of Lucy making any impact?
Well I guess the singles chart has all but evaporated into the ether anyway, not that that was the point of its release. Anyone who sought it out would have immediately recognised it had no chance of inspiring a Pan’s People routine anyway, with its doleful beat, dramatic pause in the vocal delivery and a melancholic minor key. A lament for our times, a requiem for those across our history who have made a difference and a withering chide for those too dead between the ears to realise there is still a fight to be fought – For The Dead Men is all of these. It’s also very fine songwriting, articulate and passionate and in, “Stand up and take to the streets, they cant ignore if we all choose to speak,” it has a valiant, timely rallying call.
Lucy’s debut CD, Adelphi Has To Fly, has already revealed a gift for both telling a story and dissecting matter of the heart. For The Dead Men, however, suggested a broadening of the songwriting horizons and Single Flame confirms this to be the case. It may have been over a year since the single’s release, but the wait for the album has certainly been worthwhile and the growing maturity of Lucy’s voice (in all senses) and musical scope is something to be celebrated.
Appropriately enough, Single Flame also has a much bigger sound, courtesy of Stu Hanna’s production and he and Debs (a.k.a. Megson) add various instruments and their voices to the mix. Although the sense is still of an acoustic record, there are lots of different textures and treatments, with electric guitars, drums and string all deployed. That said it’s all been created with patient layering rather than a cast of thousands. Apart for the aforementioned, Simon Pegg once again appears on bass guitar with Izzi Cooper (cello), Sebastian Hale Smith (double bass), Steve MacLachlan (drums) and Joy Gravestock and Anna Esslemont Watson(violins).
Further evidence of Lucy’s growing confidence as a writer is that all bar two of the songs are originals, with a couple co-written with producer Stu. They also share in the arrangement of the traditional songs, including writing new tunes for I Don’t Want To Die In A Storm, as the original setting was proving elusive and for Marching Through The Green Grass.
The Opener I Cannot Say I Cannot Speak is cut for the same cloth as the single, but here Lucy invokes the golden generation of 60’s folk singers and the idealism that believed A Change Is Gonna Come. Questioning why nothing ever really did change, Lucy also imagines a lone candle burning for peace that needs to be nurtured and protected. Once again the pace is slow and the sparse drum led intro gives an ominous feel. There is much evidence of the layering of instruments and voices as the song builds slowly towards a dramatic climax.
There are echoes of the apocalypse too in The Last Pirouette, based on a poem written in the 70s by her dad, while Rites Of Man takes familiar natural themes from the folk tradition, but paints a black picture of where our abuse of our resources is heading. The a cappella intro to the former is well handled and shows that Lucy still regards her voice as her main instrument – she’s never lacked courage in singing unaccompanied. The latter also starts in minimal mode, with a quivering organ underpinning Lucy’s voice, but again the build through the song is dramatic.
The Consequence is also a cappella but arranged for multiple voices in gorgeous harmony, but the song is another that pricks at the conscience. Although the album notes don’t directly say so, it was inspired by the story of Shafilea Ahmed, whose parents were jailed for life for her murder. The horror of such so called honour killings is expanded out to cover the threat of cruelty and how domestic violence can blight lives.
Ink takes a different view of the same topic, or at least the consequences of it. It’s based on the book Stuart: A Life Backwards, written by Alexander Masters about his friend Stuart Shorter. The unfortunate subject of the story was born disabled into a dysfunctional and impoverished family. He suffered years of abuse at the hands of his older brother and then from a notorious paedophile, whilst supposedly living in care. Drifting into crime and violence and prison, Stuart was eventually rescued from homelessness and became an activist campaigning for those who suffered a similar fate, until a young and probably self inflicted death. Although a bleak subject, the arrangement is sensitive and the tune is another of Lucy’s best.
There is also room for love. Icarus and Velvet Sky, both built on sweeping arrangements deal with two of its different facets. The sweep of strings of the former gives Lucy’s voice a chance to soar, but the implication is that the earthbound lover is left to flounder and drown. Velvet Sky, another mini epic, is somewhat more comforting as Lucy sings about two people comfortable with each other and entwined under the night’s sky. Honey is also a gentle and beguiling enchantment and just beautiful played and sung.
Special mention should be made too of Shellback, apparently the first song that Lucy wrote. As the sleeve notes say, its “Inspired by a generation of men, my grandfather included, who were conscripted, lost sight of what was at home and in some cases found vices to fill the void of what they had left behind.” Even without being flagged as her first composition the song stands up well, but somehow gains an extra poignancy as you imagine Lucy trying to put herself into her grandfather’s state of mind.
The gift of songwriting isn’t easy to define and there are many different approaches that seem to work, but it often seems to come down to the ability to work the little details of life that we all share into something that seems profound and important, but can easily translate form one listener to another. Each may derive something different, but the key is the connection. However it works, over the course of two albums Lucy Ward has proved she has the gift, it’s what makes Single Flame charged, emotive and utterly compelling.
As for that single it turns out to have more than done it’s job, as filmmaker Kim Hopkins heard Lucy’s music by chance after Billy Bragg shared For The Deadmen across social media. Kim was working on a new project and contacted Lucy. When the two met, they hit it off so well that Kim scrapped her original musical plans and asked Lucy to record a whole new soundtrack. The film Folie A Deux – Madness Made Of Two shows the human cost of the banking crisis and will be shown on BBC 4 this September. Result!
Review by: Simon Holland
Single Flame is released on 19 August via Navigator records