I first encountered the Co. Antrim singer-songwriter Ben Glover with the release of his 2008 debut, The Week The Clocks Changed, then billed as Ben Glover & The Earls, and became an instant admirer. Two years later, this time with a solo billing, Through The Noise, Through The Night amply confirmed his promise, conjuring references to Steve Forbert and Van Morrison. He continued to go from strength to strength, releasing Before The Birds and Do We Burn The Boats in the space of two years before 2014 brought his finest yet with Atlantic (read the Folk Radio UK review here), which, again helmed by longtime producer Neilson Hubbard, saw him collaborating with Gretchen Peters both as co-writer and performer on Blackbirds, a stunningly good southern gothic tale of incest and murder that went on to win International Song of The Year at the UK Americana Awards.
Last year, he was an integral part of The Orphan Brigade’s Civil War themed conceptual album project, Soundtrack To A Ghost Story (reviewed here), and returns now with The Emigrant, his sixth solo album and his first to go through Proper Records. Once more it’s recorded in Nashville, Glover co-producing with Hubbard (who also plays bass, percussion, and piano), but this one rings a few changes. Perhaps an extension of linking the history and tradition of Ireland and the Mississippi Delta on Atlantic. Now based in Nashville, like many an ex-pats before him it finds him nostalgically reflecting on the land of his birth and, as the title suggests, the emigrant experience (“cut loose from all you knew”) from both a personal and universal perspective, embracing, by extension, how we deal with the changes, loss and hope that life brings.
Going through the process of getting his Green Card, Glover says he found himself contemplating the concept of home, both what and where it is. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, he found himself again listening to the Irish ballads and music on which he was raised in the seaside village of Glenarm and first started playing in the local pub, aged 13. With all this swimming around in his mind, the project began taking shape with the title track, its writing begun during a writing retreat in rural Ireland and completed back in Nashville with Gretchen Peters. Breathily sung with a dusty ache and yearning, accompanied by John McCullough on piano with strings by Eamon McLoughlin and Skip Cleavinger on Uillean pipes, with lyrics about how the quest for a better life can also bring trials and tribulations, it is the album’s thematic and musical heart as well as its springboard.
Having decided what he wanted to do, Glover set about assembling the material to support the journey, resulting in three further original numbers and six Irish traditional folk songs.
It’s one such that opens proceedings, a stirring fiddle and acoustic guitar-driven rendition of the farewell–themed The Parting Glass, his Irish accent sounding more pronounced than on previous albums, followed in turn by Morrison-esque Tony Kerr co-write A Song Of Home, Colm McLean on acoustic guitar for a subdued, but slowly gathering, piano backed reflection on and celebration of things left behind and the connections that remain unbroken.
The second of the traditional arrangements is Moonshiner, a bruised heart and barroom ballad also recently covered by Chaim Tannenbaum, here with a steady chugging rhythm and fiddle solo. The first of two covers is actually from an English-born folk legend, Ralph McTell, although the song itself, the much covered From Clare To Here, is his moving story of Irish immigration and, softly sung with a sparse piano, pipes and fiddle arrangement that builds to a climax and dying fall, fits like a glove.
Another of Glover’s collaborators, Mary Gauthier, also has input on the huskily sung, vaguely waltz tempo Celtic coloured co-write Heart In My Hand, a strummed guitar and fiddle song about making the move as he sings about “being “on the edge of all that I know” and how “leaving is nothing but letting go.”
A song that is as Irish as they come, Brendan Behan’s The Auld Triangle has been done so many times, breathing new life into it is a virtual impossibility, yet, taking it at a slow, mournful pace (with a vocal that calls to mind Shane MacGowan’s version) with muted pipes in the background, Glover works a Lazarus.
The last of the original numbers, Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers, is a solo Glover contribution, 72-second fiddle and guitar setting of the album’s inside cover dedication, “For the dreamers, for the strangers, for the pilgrims know the cost. May they wander, may they ramble, may they never be lost.”
Although he was Scottish rather than Irish, Eric Bogle was also an emigrant, travelling to make a new life in Australia at the age of 25. He’s penned countless songs, but the ones that keep turning up are his anti-war classics The Green Fields of France and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It’s the latter, sung in the voice of an Australian soldier who lost his legs in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, that appears here, a near eight-minute version with Dan Mitchell on the piano to which Glover brings a stark personal intensity that’s only gravel in the throat away from Tom Waits.
McCullogh accompanying on reflective piano with whistles appearing in the final stretch, the album ends with a love letter to his home county in the shape of the traditional The Green Glens of Antrim where you can hear the longing in his voice as the lyrics conjure the hills, the shore and the sun on the sea in a way that negates any of the song’s inherent sentimentality.
It’s a magnificent album and a substantial addition to the Irish emigrant canon that fully confirms Glover as one of the finest in the Americana genre. And, after this reflection on what was left behind, it would be interesting to hear a sequel from the perspective of the pioneers and immigrants making a life in their new world.
The Emigrant is released today via Proper Records.
Sat October 08 – GLASGOW AMERICANA, CCA, Glasgow – SOLD OUT
The Emigrant Release Show
Fri October 14 – No Alibis Bookstore, Belfast, N.Ireland – SOLD OUT
Fri October 21 – The Londonderry Arms Hotel, Carnlough, Northern Ireland