Karine Polwart: Laws of Motion

review polwart x1 cong

Folk singer Polwart doesn’t need to sing or play instruments to sound good — as she proves on I Burn But I Am Not Consumed, she can talk mellifluously; it’s almost a disappointment when she starts to sing.

I Burn But I Am Not Consumed is a good start to the album. In the opening spoken section she introduces Mary Anne MacLeod (“I Burn But I Am Not Consumed” being the MacLeod family motto) and tells her life, introducing her middle son Donald John, and then moving onto a bystander to that son’s despoliation of the countryside, the rock of Isle of Lewis. It’s made of gneiss, a metamorphic rock that really has been burnt (and squished) but not consumed.

Her critique of Donald Trump – “Here you are, a broken boy / You want more, and more, and more / You builds a tower, you build a wall / You live in fear that they might fall” — must be the most poetic attack on his personality, but is no less biting for all that.

The ideas of that song — travel, time, journeys — are most extremely expressed: the Lewis gneiss is Precambrian, the geological period that goes back to the earth’s creation, and accounts for 88% of our geologic time. Donald Trump is not even a scratch on a mote of dust through the gneiss’s eyes, firmly confining Trump to the waste bin of history.

Conflict also seems to figure. The title track starts off electronically, with the initial vocals out of kilter with the music, before turning more pop/folk: it appears to be about people fleeing war but never being able to do so (Trump’s wall re-appears). Cassiopeia sees her recall her fears of nuclear war, and features the old “protect and survive” advice from 1979 in case of nuclear war — hide under the table — juxtaposed with her own plans, hiding in the jam cupboard, living on digestive biscuits.

Suitcase opens more traditionally, with accordion and vocal, telling the story of child refugees. Young Man On A Mountain skips between Scottish mountain life and life in the Italian Apennine mountains for an escaped WW2 prisoner (we think, it reminded us of Eric Newby’s Love And War in the Apennines).

Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart is a song about a ruined Japanese garden at Muckhart, Clack-mannanshire; the garden was maintained by a Japanese man named Matsuo until his death in 1936.

A haunting and intelligent album.

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