It’s that time of the year again, and with the welcome inevitability of such things here’s a brand new Kate Rusby offering to brighten up those dark, dismal days of the encroaching winter. But let’s not get too cosy and predictable, or jump to conclusions… for I’m aware that there are listeners (even among her admirers) who’ve felt that Kate’s music has stayed contentedly still, resting on a comfortable plateau over the past few years. Time to wake up, then – for Life In A Paper Boat, which happens to be Kate’s 14th studio album, provides conclusive proof that Kate’s artistry is constantly evolving too.
You’ll be relieved to hear that Kate’s gorgeous voice is still intact, absolutely unmistakable in all its distinctively breathy charm. But in some other respects, you might well feel on first exposure that (at any rate at times) Life In A Paper Boat doesn’t sound quite like you’d expect a Kate Rusby record to sound – not least when you encounter regular mention of Moog synthesiser and drum programming in there among the credits alongside the usual acoustic and electric guitars, double bass, diatonic accordion, banjo, bouzouki, whistle, and flute. After hearing the whole album, though, you’ll more likely come to regard Life On A Paper Boat as something of a transitional set, with several tracks still inhabiting the familiar Rusby small-band intimacy and then others employing a lusher sheen to the texture and conjuring a sound world that’s more consciously upholstered in terms of its instrumental arrangements. But it’s all done in the best possible taste without descending into bland, and any initial surprise or shock soon wears off as you get accustomed to the gentle opulence of the soundscape, and any slight suspicion of over-arrangement is easily and quickly dispelled.
The album’s been produced by Kate’s husband, Damien O’Kane, whose own recent solo album Areas Of High Traffic contained similarly ambitious, full-bodied arrangements; the deft (and selective) use of programmed percussion on Kate’s new album is down to Josh Clark, and this element creates what Kate calls “an uneasy darkness around a song” that emphasises “the union between old songs and modern musical technology”. But fear not, for fellow Rusby Band members Nick Cooke, Steven Byrnes, Steven Iveson and Duncan Lyall are all still present and correct, augmented occasionally by Mike McGoldrick and Anthony Davis and the glistening aura of Donald Grant’s chamber-folk mini-string-section (and a quintet of trusty brass players on the final track). Additionally, Americana veteran Ron Block takes on banjo duty for three especially delectable tracks (Damien confining himself to guitars this time round), while Ron’s Alison Krauss Band colleague Dan Tyminski duets with Kate on two of these: the cheerful, if reflective homily Only Desire What You Have and the prescient, somewhat mournful portrayal of The Mermaid.
The latter-mentioned tracks comprise two contrasting examples from the half-dozen new Rusby originals on the album, all winners. The title track is Kate’s moving personal response to the current migrant crisis, which has (rightly) struck a chord in so many of our songwriters of late. She wrote the song after watching the seemingly endless round of TV reports on the situation, sharing our wish for some answers but realising there aren’t any (“all I have is a song”, she admits with appealing and disarming honesty). Although I can understand Kate’s reasoning, in that the song title “lends itself to so many different images and metaphors, giving me a canvas with scope for a multitude of musical and lyrical brushstrokes”, its mood of fragile survival and quiet desperation isn’t really a central preoccupation for the disc as a whole.
Hunter’s Moon is a touching fable of unrequited cosmic love between two celestial bodies (the moon and the sun) who are destined never to meet, while I’ll Be Wise tenderly explores the timeless traditional situation of a girl beguiled and betrayed by her lover. Bonus track (and a perfect choice for a single) Big Brave Bill forms the album’s most fun moment, an endearing, simple tale of a genial superhero that started life as a bedtime story for her two daughters.
All but one of the remaining tracks are sourced from tradition, mainly either having words arranged by Kate and Damien or with new tunes by Kate; the wistful, beautiful Hundred Hearts and the shimmering Night Lament are probably the finest of these, although the album opener is attractive too in a different way – it’s an animated, sprightly jaunt through the odd fable of Benjamin Bowmaneer (maybe not a song I’d have expected to hear Kate cover, but it works well). More in keeping with Kate’s customary merry-seasonal-trad-arr styling is her skip-along account of the Pace Egging Song, which could have cropped up on almost any of her previous albums and not seemed out of place. Here, though, it’s swiftly on the heels of the jollity of Pace Egging Song that we encounter Archie Fisher’s mystical legend The Witch Of The Westmoreland, a piece that has often passed for a traditional ballad. Aside from an instrumental prelude which threatens to engulf Kate in its gloomy windswept synth-scape, this track is something of an unexpected triumph, with Kate delivering an enchanting rendition of the tale against a sparsely-scored backdrop (involving just Damien and Duncan, on electric tenor guitar, double bass, and Moog respectively) which is both sumptuous and ingenious. Indeed, the expansive musical backdrops on the disc as a whole are full of interesting detail while also possessing an airy, spacious quality that’s refreshing and stimulating: not an easy trick to pull off, but Kate’s voice is certainly heard to benefit from this approach.
So well done Kate, for coming up with a fine new album that once again furthers her development as a songwriter firmly in the tradition. It avoids the snares of the predictable while springing a few surprises, sure to please existing as well as well as bring new fans to her music.
Life in a Paper Boat is Out Now on Pure Records
Order it via Kate Rusby Shop
Visit Kate’s website for full details of her tour dates here: www.katerusby.com/tour-dates