Two Wolves is the new album by Marry Waterson, made in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist David A. Jaycock, with contributions from Neill MacColl (guitars, six-string bass) and Kate St. John (piano, oboe, cor anglais, accordion). It’s an intriguing and absorbing combination of a diverse range of talents and listening to it is like opening an elaborately-wrapped package in a musical game of pass-the-parcel with each layer, each successive play, revealing a new and unexpected facet.
Marry describes the opening ‘Sing Me Into Your Tune’ as being about “the subject of longing fulfilled without any concessions or coercions” and this sentiment is reflected in the arrangement which is simultaneously simple and complex. David’s multitracked guitars interlace seamlessly, flowing ever onwards while Kate St. John’s cor anglais, although quite far back in the mix, adds an almost autumnal feel. Marry’s singing moves easily between a delicate breathiness and a rich confidence, topping off one of the record’s highlights.
There’s an appealing ambiguity in the lyrics for ‘Hoping To Be Saved’; described by Marry as “a lament about disappearing village communities” it leaves the listener to decide if it’s about rural deprivation in this increasingly harsh economic climate or whether it’s a reference to rising sea levels driven by climate change. Maybe it’s both, maybe there’s another interpretation I’ve overlooked. Nevertheless it’s a highly atmospheric composition, opening with a field recording of wave sounds over distant bells and orchestral drones before David’s almost discordant guitar enters. Marry’s lyric is a vivid word picture of the gradual decline of a multitude of everyday lives before everything changed – “kettles silenced, one by one” is as descriptive as it is ominous – while Kate’s contributions of distant piano and an eery string arrangement are scattered throughout like flickering candles in the windows of cottages along the shore.
Another of the album’s highlights is undoubtedly the lead single ‘The Honey and The Seaweed’. It’s the first of two songs which explicitly acknowledge the Waterson legacy and has attracted interest because of its use of lyrics written by Marry’s Mum, the late Lal Waterson, in the 1960s for her friend and co-writer Christine Collins. However, it’s a measure of the close musical bond between Marry and David that they have given Lal’s words a setting which is appropriately respectful without compromising their own particular collaborative sound. Marry’s voice is very much at the centre of the unadorned yet entirely sufficient instrumental arrangement, with Lal’s reputation for coming up with unexpected harmonies reflected in the refrain and echoed in David’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar. Kate’s piano adds strength through its deliberate simplicity while the accompanying video, animated by Marry, is a delight to see.
‘Digging For Diamonds’ features Neill MacColl on Marxophone (fretless zither): it’s an instrument I hadn’t heard (or heard of!) before but its distinctive yet unusual sound – somewhere between a mandolin and a hammered dulcimer – sits perfectly with the guitars (one acoustic guitar and a reverbed electric) and double bass in this introspective ballad’s woozy and dreamlike setting. Marry’s vocals are lush and full with some sweet harmonies by Kami Thompson (The Rails) on a very contemporary song which effortlessly incorporates elements of folk, pop, jazz and 1960s-tinged psychedelia without once losing its way.
In the PR notes, Marry says that title track ‘Two Wolves’ is “a reflection on the duality of human nature”, a tantalising and enigmatic description, to say the least! The song reflects this binaristic worldview in an arrangement which encapsulates the lyric’s intent with a series of major/minor modulations enhanced by some ethereal synths to create an ambience which again briefly tips its hat to 1960s-tinged psychedelia while remaining grounded in the 21st century. Although I initially found the song’s “ego or empathy” essentialism difficult to swallow (are we humans really so simple?), repeated listenings have drawn me further into it, revealing a slow-burner which time may well prove to be one of the record’s strongest compositions.
‘Caught on the Coattails’ draws the curtains and flings wide the windows, blowing away the patchouli-scented reverie of ‘Two Wolves’ with a discreetly uptempo slab of contemporary folk-rock. Fluttering oboe over a steady electric guitar rhythm track gradually gives way to David’s buzzing synth lines before some rolling drums herald a coda which features some breathtakingly gorgeous harmonies over which Marry’s voice, swathed in echo, swoops and soars.
Over a soundtrack of a field recording of rural ambience, ‘Ginger Brown and Apple Green’ is a blissful and tranquil a capella celebration of a warm day in the countryside, its lyric painting a word picture of some of its sights and sounds. I’m writing this on a wet and windy November afternoon and Marry’s voice, clear as crystal water and as rich as the dappled sunlight in the trees, is surely a tonic for the hearts, minds and ears of those of us who washed up on the drab concrete shores of some anonymous urban wasteland years ago and have never quite managed to achieve escape velocity since. Aural bliss.
The softly swaying ‘Woolgathering Girl’ is a song to drift away to, an idyllic acoustic lullaby interspersed with Neill MacColl’s Marxophone. The darkly opaque lyric references Lewis Carroll (“down the rabbit hole”), Lord Nelson and Under Milk Wood, but my interpretation of it changes with each listening. One couplet in particular sticks in my mind and, even though I have absolutely no idea what it means, it’s beautifully and hauntingly poetic:
“Close my eyes to those that died, all those crimes, lies and why?
To be oblivious, zipping the bubble up, trying to find the love”
The second song to acknowledge the Waterson legacy, ‘Velvet Yeller’ – another of the record’s highlights – is similarly striking, albeit for an entirely different reason, namely its use of samples from Mike Waterson’s recording of ‘Tam Lin’ in the opening bars and then intermittently throughout. Marry has said of the song, “I got to ‘sing’ with him one more time by weaving him into this tribute, which he read before he died” and there’s no doubt that it has a quiet emotive power as a result. The timbral contrast between Mike’s gritty voice and the smooth, deep double bass is especially striking.
Bluesy guitar licks and lushly layered harmonies decorate the countrified ‘Brighter Thinking’, a song which seems to be about struggling to be positive in the increasingly hard-faced world in which we live; a subject which will surely ring true with many. The line “adversity certainly convinces me there could never be enough kindness” carries an emotional weight which will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever had to live with depression for any length of time. And while I appreciate that the endless everyday battling with the multitude of demons summoned by the illness is as debilitating as it is hard to describe, sometimes just knowing that we’re not alone can be a tremendous support in simply getting through another tough day in an unkind world.
The theme of kindness to others is echoed in ‘Teen and The Thief’, a letter of sorts from a parent to a child going through their first teenage heartbreak. David’s fingerstyle acoustic guitar maintains a steady, affirmative feel around which a cello weaves resolutely supportive lines beneath Marry’s clear advice on working through extremes of emotion in a way which won’t make matters worse.
Adorned with banjo and swelling strings, ‘Mockingbird’ is a short but sweet song, with a cryptic, presumably allegorical lyric about “my chaperone” which paves the way for ‘Circa ’73’. Fading in on Neill MacColl’s spaciously reverbed guitaret (electric lamellaphone), it’s a nostalgic look back through a family album of faded photographs, an affectionate recollection of the halcyon days of childhood when the world was still a place of wonder and awe.
The sunny sound of ‘Emotional Vampire’, punctuated by electric piano and electric guitar powerchords, makes the ideal counterpoint to Marry’s deceptively desultory vocals, the whole building steadily to its climactic refrain – “Don’t leave me dry, emotional vampire” – with Marry’s ad libs adding to the uncompromising mood.
The closing track, ‘Sing Me Into Your Tune Reprise’, brings us full circle, back to where we began, with a shortish instrumental version of the record’s opener. David’s guitars still underpin the song, while Kate’s cor anglais is much more to the fore, but it’s Marry’s wordless multitracked vocals that captivate.
Two Wolves is a superb album, one of the year’s best, with each of its songs brimming with nuance and depth. Although covering some deeply personal subjects, Marry’s skills as a singer, lyricist and, above all, a story-teller bring a very human touch, enabling the songs to maintain their focus and intensity without overwhelming the listener. David’s compositions are beguiling and inventive, providing the ideal musical foil, both for Marry’s compelling voice and Kate’s subtle arrangements.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Photo credit: Nikoletta Monyok