When writing an in-depth review of an important new album, it is normal to start somewhere near the beginning, to pick a measured path through the record, to assess it as the sum of its chronological parts and to talk about those individual parts in some semblance of order. It is certainly not customary to begin with the very last words of the final track. But perhaps it should be. It is, after all, the moment the whole album has been working towards, the focal point of months, often years of work on the part of songwriters and performers.
The final three words on Epitaph, the closing track on Eliza Carthy’s latest album Big Machine, are an emphatic, defiant cry of ‘death by custard.’ The song itself would be a delightful non-sequitur on most albums, a canny mixture of the surreal and the mundane, but in this instance, the unequivocal vigour of the delivery forces the listener to call into question its outward ridiculousness. Epitaph is basically a hard rock song played on folk instruments, a blustering, bullish statement that builds from string-laden pathos to full-band swagger in a matter of seconds, with Carthy in the role of no-nonsense band leader and folk-rock frontwoman.
It would be an ambitious way to begin an album, but it is perhaps an even more ambitious way to end one. But Carthy then again has always had an ambitious vision for folk music. From her early work with the likes of Nancy Kerr, her many albums with other members of the extended Waterson:Carthy family, through countless collaborations and a fair few solo releases, she has never been one to stand still or to admit the possibility that folk music might stand still. Her admirably restless career has seen her record and perform with the likes of Billy Bragg, Jools Holland, Patrick Wolf and Wilco, and in doing so she has helped introduce British folk music to a wider audience than practically anyone else in the last twenty years.
The energy Carthy puts into her music is evidently fuelled by a conviction that what she does has value on a social level as well as an artistic one, and fans will be pleased to know that Big Machine contains that energy in abundance, and not just in its brilliantly bonkers closing track. She is accompanied throughout by The Wayward Band, a twelve-strong squadron of British folk luminaries that includes melodeon maestro Saul Rose, Bellowhead’s Sam Sweeney and Blowzabella’s Barn Stradling. Opener Fade And Fall (Love Not) sees a traditional ballad given the James Bond theme treatment. Carthy’s voice has never been more powerful, her use of brass instruments never more impressive. Devil In The Woman is more typical folk-rock fayre, the taut electric guitars and pounding bass helping to hammer home lyrics that deal with domestic abuse, proof that social issues explored by folk music over time are still more than relevant today.
The social aspect of Carthy’s songs remains in the foreground throughout. A gloriously vampish rendition of Ewan MacColl’s The Fitter’s Song has the brassiness of a show-tune and a guitar line that recalls Keith Richards’ work on the Tom Waits album Rain Dogs. It all serves to increase rather than diminish the power of the words.
There are moments of sublime subtlety too: the way the voices merge with the instruments in the introductory section of Jack Warrell’s (excerpt)/Love Lane, and the atmospheric commingling of brass and fiddle in the same track before it is carried off in a whirlwind of percussion and handclaps. Hug You Like A Mountain provides perhaps the album’s most tender moment, a cover of a song by folk troubadour and former fire-eater Rory McLeod, rendered here as a duet on which Carthy is joined by another scion of folk-rock royalty, Teddy Thompson.
One of Carthy’s many virtues is her ability to surprise at every turn, but nothing in her career so far can be quite as surprising as You Know Me, a fully-fledged folk-rock/hip-hop crossover, featuring a verse by MC Dizraeli, and a guitar part that taps into North African funk. While attempts at this kind of hybrid often fall flat, this one works brilliantly for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it immerses itself in what it is trying to do rather than being half-hearted about it. Carthy obviously has a great feel for musical idioms that ostensibly don’t resemble her own, and she throws herself into unlikely and interesting collaborations with a genuine passion. Just as importantly, she uses these collaborations to address problems of a contemporary nature – in this case, the refugee crisis and the suffering it can bring – and this gives her songs an immediacy that chimes perfectly with the freshness of the sound.
Further evidence of her love for surprising juxtapositions comes in Big Machine’s track sequencing. You Know Me, the most obviously contemporary song on the album, is followed directly by Great Grey Back, which takes a decidedly more traditional form, that of the sea shanty. But on closer inspection even this has its surprises: updating a classic format to include reference to modern Antarctic exploration on the survey ship RRS James Clark Ross (as well as a sly nod to the famed Boaty McBoatface).
Mrs. Dyer The Baby Farmer is a sombre and sobering lesson from the past, a ballad telling the gruesome story of Amelia Dyer, possibly Britain’s most prolific serial killer, who was hanged in 1896. Carthy’s vocal, as powerful as ever, is ably assisted by fiddles that wail and scratch and a darkly insistent hand clapped beat. On the equally powerful I Wish That The Wars Were All Over she is joined by Irish singer Damien Dempsey. A traditional ballad whose pertinence is greater now than ever, it is all the more remarkable for having been recorded live in the studio. Add to this a forbidding arrangement of the broadside ballad The Sea, (an arrangement that is almost sea-like in itself, with its potent ebb and flow), and aforementioned Epitaph, and the result is an album of unrestrained ambition and masterful execution from a performer at the very top of her game. Big Machine has all the hallmarks of a vastly important release, and should cement Eliza Carthy’s place as one of our most valuable musicians.
Big Machine is released via Topic Records on 3rd February 2017