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Shirley Collins Heart’s Ease

As though Alan Lomax were making fly-on-the-wall recordings in an old matriarch’s front room.

Released: 24 July 2020
Heart’s Ease

2017’s Lodestar was Shirley Collins’ first record in forty years; Heart’s Ease cements her comeback.

Those who didn’t pick up Lodestar will note the complete transformation of Collins’ voice, the hint of a Sussex accent the only tether to those older records. Weathered, grandmotherly and deeply characterful, songs are intoned rather than sung.

In this sense, she recalls the great obscure characters of folk music history, as though Alan Lomax were making fly-on-the-wall recordings in an old matriarch’s front room. But this is an honest-to-goodness studio album, as deliberate and meticulous as any other. The closest it gets to the spontaneity characterising those old records is the joyously sloppy stomper ‘Orange in Bloom’, which erupts after ‘Whitsun Dance’ like an impromptu pub ceilidh.

Collins has always had grand visions. 1969’s Anthems in Eden, with its side-long ‘Song-Story’ and antique orchestra, bridges ultra-traditional folk music with the ambitious conceptuality characterising that era’s rock’n’roll. At points, Heart’s Ease seems to respond to that sixties document. ‘Whitsun Dance’ does so directly, as a reprise of the Song-Story’s penultimate song. Describing a woman “fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride”, the sixties interpretation is sung with the austere removal of a detached narrator. Here, an aged, friendlier Collins sings with empathic identification.

The “Awake, Awake…” medley opening Lodestar was that record’s clear standout. Leaning into the weathered quality of her voice, she cut the figure of a sage or oracle, issuing warnings across a desolate landscape of rumbling cymbals and ominous drones. On Heart’s Ease, we glimpse a similar vibe at the very end with ‘Crowlink’. A darkly glittering drone piece, Collins’ voice is in a state of transcendence, echoing spectrally among the sounds of squawking gulls and ocean waves.

The balance of tradition and forward vision is what is most striking. This old folk standard-bearer seems to jive more with the moody experimentalism of Áine O’Dwyer than with any group trying to capture the flame of the past.