Album review: Shirley Collins – Archangel Hill

Words by Alex Neilson

Grande Dame? National Treasure? Folk Royalty? These are just some of the appellations routinely tacked onto the name of Shirley Collins. And while they basically fit, they imply a distant fondness of personality from someone who’s best work is behind them. None of these things apply to Our Shirley. She’s warm, funny and acerbic; engaged with contemporary music trends and encouraging towards younger neophytes. But I’m not here to write copy for her fictional Tinder bio. She’s also a questing musician who has been at the vanguard of traditional music for over half a century and shows no signs of slowing down.

On Archangel Hill, you can chart the development of her music directly, as she re-sets songs first visited on previous albums. These include opening track “Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear” which, on her 1976 album Amaranth, has an elastic buoyancy that’s almost reminiscent of dub music. Here it’s stripped to the bone with Shirley’s voice, warm with emotion, teasing out new meanings to the song through decades of internalisation of the themes and inhabitation of the characters. Her reading of “Hares On The Mountain”, accompanied by plaintive piano and woozy slide guitar, has a penitential quality, as she delivers lines like “If all you young men were hares on the mountain/ How many young girls would take guns and go hunting” with a grim resignation. This is a poignant contrast to the coquettish note she hits on Folk Roots New Routes  in 1964, with sensuous vocal coiling round Davy Graham‘s sidewinding guitar. 

Other highlights include “High And Away”, with lyrics by long time collaborator Pip Barnes who drew inspiration from Shirley’s storied trip to America with folklorist Alan Lomax in the late 1950’s. The song has the see-saw cadence of a nursery rhyme, with guitar and marimba undermined by the distant grumble of thunder. Elsewhere, “Oakham Poachers” is a compelling hard luck story about a band of brothers who get their comeuppance at the hands of cruel gentry. But the real centrepiece of the album is “Hand On Heart“. It’s a startlingbeautiful moment, taken from a live recording at Sydney Opera House in 1980, when Dolly Collins‘ harpsichord appears like celestial scaffolding around Shirley’s heavenly voice. Two sisters: made in England, belonging to the cosmos.

The eponymous closing track is a love letter to Shirley’s county of origin, Sussex- detailing its areas of natural beauty and cultural heritage. It’s reminiscent of the end of “All You Need Is Love” in the way that the guitar quotes fragments from various other songs over a cascading autoharp progression- like scenes from one’s own life falling slowly through the mind. The love really oozes through, as if Sussex itself is synonymous with love. And that is all you need.

Archangel Hill is due for release 26th May via Domino Records


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