Following his collaboration with Boo Hewerdine and an album with LAU last year, 2016 sees Scottish songwriter and guitarist Kris Drever strike out alone with a stunning new album, If Wishes Were Horses. And he’s assembled an ace team to back him. Guitar genius (and Kris’s proclaimed hero) Ian Carr adds light and shade, weaving in and out, deftly complimenting Kris’s intricate guitar work on which the songs are built.
Euan Burton adds texture to the bottom end with electric, acoustic and occasionally bowed bass. Louis Abbott – best known as guitarist, songwriter and frontman of the band Admiral Fallow – demonstrates he’s no slouch at the sticks either, adding percussion and drums. It’s a tight unit and the album vibe is akin to Richard Thompson’s two most recent efforts with a stripped-down band, Electric and Still.
Without accordion, fiddle or pipes, this is very much a singer-songwriter album with Kris’s words and melodies to the fore. As the title suggests this is a collection of songs in a wistful mood, exploring themes of love, loss, loneliness and longing for home.
Kris recently moved back to the Northern Isles. He now lives in Shetland, even further north and remote than his native Orkney. Being a self-employed musician on the road, it’s not surprising that transport – by boat, car, train – and the loneliness of the long-distance tour schedule punctuates these songs.
The album opens with I Didn’t Try Hard Enough. But don’t be fooled by its jaunty arrangement, this is a break-up song, and a brutally honest one at that (think Loudon Wainwright III). Kris describes these songs as semi-biographical, and it’s clear he’s looking back here on a pretty tumultuous relationship that didn’t end well. Dismissed as ‘four uncertain years’, the harshest blow Kris reserves for his ex: ‘I missed the factory job I used to do/ I never thought I’d miss it more/ Than I thought that I’d missed you.’ The song’s title clearly means, ‘I didn’t bother to save this relationship’ rather than ‘I wish I had tried harder to save it.’ And the repeated refrain ‘Oh well’, which may seem a little perfunctory as a lyric, is elevated by Kris’s delivery to become a cry of acceptance and reconciliation with the past.
And the next song, When We Roll In The Morning, perhaps explains how he has been able to move on. Despite enduring a year that felt like he’s suffered ‘a death in the family’, the singer has found happiness with a new love. She’s ‘beautiful and wise’ and has brought light and life back into his life: ‘When she breathes into me/ And scatters my thinking/ As a gale to a pile of dry leaves.’ Although it opens like a lament, the song has a swelling sense of optimism (‘a new idea’s dawning on me’) that is conveyed through the lyrics and Ian Carr’s gorgeous licks which build throughout the track.
After two brilliant new songs, the third track, Capernaum, is a cover of Scottish writer Lewis Spence’ poem set to a melody by Edinburgh-born folk revival singer Ed Miller from his 1989 album, Border Background. The song reached a wider audience when The Tannahill Weavers recorded an acapella version and made it the title track of their 1994 album. Kris’s arrangement takes its lead from Miller’s original, jazzing it up a little to make it more of a foot tapper.
Driven by a countryesque rhythm from Louis Abbott, bowed bass and church-hall piano from Euan Burton, Shipwrecked is about leaving behind a loved one. Early starts, catching the car ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen must be a regular route for Kris when he’s off on tour. Here he recounts the lonely journey to the mainland, wishing he was cosy in back in bed where his new love lies waiting. The arrangement and vibe, particularly the melancholy guitar work from Ian Carr, brings to mind Josh Rouse circa the albums 1972 and Nashville.
Next up is the title track, If Wishes Were Horses, which starts with an intricate guitar riff from Kris before being joined by a syncopated rhythm from Euan and later a mournful trumpet solo. As the title suggests, this is a song about dreams and hopes of things that will never be. The songwriter’s deadpan wit is in evidence too, and we can all agree with the sentiments of this couplet: ‘I wish that politicians ties/ Would tighten up when they tell lies.’ If wishes were horses indeed…
Romance is in the air in The Longest Day, in which the singer recalls a tender kiss in the moonlight. This leads him to ruminate about how we are all wanderers searching for paradise, but that – as American novelist Thomas Wolfe famously observed – ‘you can never go home’. This seems to be Kris reflecting on his new life in Shetland, so similar but not quite the same as his home on Orkney.
The next song, When The Shouting Is Over, is more upbeat, the arrangement reminding this reviewer (and the next track particularly) of Ron Sexsmith’s albums Retriever and Time Being. The lyrics seem to be fatherly advice to a son who’s about to take off into the world on his own. It could well be Kris’s own dad that he’s recalling, particularly the assertion to ‘fill empty halls’, something Mr Drever now has no difficulty achieving. In contrast to the previous song’s rejection of the possibility of ever finding home, there is more hope here: ‘When the race is run and the shouting is all over/ Come on home.’
In Don’t Tell Me That (Human Nature) the singer looks back on a (presumably) heated discussion with someone who, despite hailing from the same town, has polar opposite political views. But this is not an acceptance of differing opinions. Far from it, the singer gives a warning that holding such ‘rapacious’ views are not only wrong, it may ultimately lead to your undoing if you find yourself needing the help you cruelly deny others.
Hard Year takes up the mantle, examining why people passively sit by and let vile politicians and authorities destroy all that’s good, telling lie after lie until people (like the subject of the previous song) accept it as the truth. It’s a rallying cry against passivity and apathy: ‘So bring things too the fore and let them know/ Voice your doubts and call them to the sky.’
In stark contrast the lugubrious Five Past Two is an ode to lethargy. It recounts the feeling you get around two in the afternoon, when you’ve got plenty of semi-urgent things to do. But you haven’t done them yet and half the day is gone. It’s a peek into the life of a self-employed musician who has MU fees to pay, ballads to memorise, calls to make but who’s home alone on a remote Scottish island. Yet the song conjures a feeling of ennui that we can all relate to. There’s plenty of chores to do but you’re still mooching about in your pyjamas…
The final track, Goin To The North, finishes on an upbeat note and resolves many of the themes of the album. Perhaps heeding the fatherly advice given on When The Shouting is Over, it sees the singer, and his partner presumably, heading back to their parental ‘homes’ in Orkney. It’s a comforting destination, somewhere where space is made, a bed provided and there’s always a warm welcome. Kris describes the pull of his island birthplace like a magnet, but it’s more than just a place to find physical rest, it helps to restore the soul: ‘The cold wind concentrates the mind/ And blows the blues away.’
It’s no coincidence that throughout this review If Wishes Were Horses has been compared to the works of some lauded singer-songwriters, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Josh Rouse and Ron Sexsmith. This latest release is a triumph that confirms Kris Drever’s place among the best of the best. It’s not a solo album made while taking time out from LAU, in terms of songwriting this is the most mature and dazzling thing that Kris has produced so far. As a celebration of ten years as a solo artist, it’s not looking back to the past but looking forward to an assured future. One to savour.
Review by: Peter Shaw
If Wishes Were Horses is released 25 March via Reveal Records
Order via Kris Drever
Photo Credit: Chloe Garrick