Seth Lakeman has achieved something quite rare for a contemporary folk artist and that is commercial success. Whilst The Punch Bowl and Kitty Jay represented the best of modern folk, his later albums seem to have bridged a gap with pop and rock which, accompanied with a Mercury Prize nomination, have brought fiddles and banjos to a much wider audience and made him into a household name.
Hearts And Minds opens in a similar vein to Poor Man’s Heaven and the title track blazes with thunderous violins, driving and passionate. As ever this is a strong starting point and you would be forgiven for assuming that the same success formula had been adopted, but as the album progresses it becomes clear that Lakeman has stepped out of his comfort zone lyrically to deliver more of the up to date themes we heard in the likes of Solomon Browne. Hard Working Man is an obvious example and discusses the current economic climate but more subtly the emotive lyrics of Spinning Days, about soldiers losing their lives in battle, couldn’t seem more poignant.
Musically there has also been some fine tuning. Teaming up with Tchad Blake, the producer and engineer internationally renowned for his work with the likes of Tom Wait, Crowded House, and Elvis Costello has ultimately lead to richer sounds and seems to have pulled out the very best of Lakeman’s vocal and instrumental skills. On no track is this more evident than The Circle Grows, which seems to capture some of the best softer moments from his live shows. My only criticism of the album is that, besides the title track, some of the up tempo numbers seem to have lost their spark. See Them Dance marks no comparison to the likes of King And Country or Race To Be King and this will disappoint some die-hard Seth fans.
However in some respects it is unfair to compare new with old and Hearts And Minds is an entirely different proposition. Where Lakeman could easily have rehashed a number of old folk fables he has chosen to go back to the roots of the genre, telling stories about real life in a way that makes them accessible. Stark and unforgiving in his scathing rhetoric Lakeman has taken a clear direction with this album which deserves to pay off.