Karine Polwart has never been one for ‘easy’ songs and this new release certainly acts as no departure. With Traces, the Scottish singer-songwriter does however go deeper, depicting as vivid an image with the instrumentation as she does the lyrics. Opener Cover Your Eyes acts as a perfect marker of what’s to come, ebbing and flowing with a sorrow which runs right through the grain.
Tinsel Show explores the BP plant which dominated the horizon of her childhood home, and is tinged with childhood naivety, wrapped in a cloak of adult wisdom. Phrases coloured with magic (“she sees stars and spells and sparklers in her hand”) sit up against more bitter refrains (“while hireling wages steal our dreams from our souls”) with a delicate ease, forcing you to take note. Meanwhile Salters Road turns it’s focus to the memory of a neighbour, it’s meandering harmonies forcing you to envision countryside walks in the breeze.
Having seen Karine perform the new material live before it’s release, it was King of Birds which really struck a nerve, the building chorus sounding like the beginning of a call to arms. Though littered with symbolism, there is something almost paradoxically simplistic in it’s delivery, quite literally bringing a sense of hope into the song. Elsewhere, whilst Tears For Lot’s Wife boasts obvious religious themes, for me it’s the follow up Don’t Worry which really highlights Karine’s knack for adding depth and meaning to a song. As she sings “to ease out the thorns from the heart of his soul and roll away the stone” the image of a Jesus-like figure come to the forefront.
Though the album is filled with stand out tracks, it’s closer Half A Mile which delivers the real power punch. Based on the abduction and murder of Susan Maxwell it is brimming with sorrow. Its stripped opening builds into a ghostly delivery (boosted by Inge Thomson’s backing), which lingers on long after the track (and indeed the album) has ended. Yet at the same time it also captures what it might have felt like to be Susan, “high on being old enough to walk home for the first time” whilst somehow avoiding over-sentimentality, it is poignant in its simplicity and intricate instrumentation.
Whilst it’s Karine’s poetry that is perhaps most prominent throughout the album, it’s the band’s addition of clarinet, trumpet, flute and glockenspiel (amongst a plethora of other instruments) which builds the atmosphere and ambiance, and fuses music with word. This culminates in an album which is as much about delivery as it is about content. With both blending together, the result is in an offering which creates an overwhelming sense of emotion from the opening breath, to the last beat.