REVIEW: James Yorkston, The Road to Harmonium

James Yorkston has never been what one might call a soul singer.  He seldom intensifies his voice to convey emotion, or boasts any extraordinary range, and almost never screams out the words in which he sings in unrestrained, feral passion. Instead, throughout his two-decade career, James has tended to sing in little more than the spoken word.  A kind of fragile, almost slurred affair. This isn’t to suggest, however, that Yorkston’s voice isn’t one of outstanding beauty. On the contrary, it is his almost lullaby-like vocal delivery that makes the experience of listening to James Yorkston records so satisfying.

Throughout a recorded history in which Yorkston’s sound has, in many ways, evolved to see him display experimental tendencies, partner up with an array of producers and musicians, and dip his toes into a variety of genres (although never straying too far from folk), it is Yorkston’s extraordinary ability to deliver music that feels so personal and intimate that has been constant.  

Yorkston’s newest record, The Route to Harmonium, consists of 12 new songs recorded in the loft space of his home in the small fishing village of Cellardyke, Fife. The album is rich in understated melody and significant beauty. Lyrically, it is deeply nostalgic and focuses on the people and places that Yorkston has known in his life; the loved and the lost.  This quite prominently includes somewhat difficult subjects, such as the crumbling of relationships, and friends who he has lost to drugs and suicide.

The album opens with the light, breezy, almost ethereal Your Beauty Could Not Save You, in which chime like strings accompany Yorkston’s sombre ponderings while he asks “did you expect me to be happy? Or did you not think of me?” A clear contrast between the sorrow that Yorkston expresses in his lyrics and the quiet nods of optimism in the melody and instrumentals is evident early on and something that is played with throughout the album to come.

The album’s second song, The Irish Wars of Independence, is the first of three spoken word pieces that act as breakwaters, ensuring that the more subtle and delicate tracks have room to breathe and don’t become lost among one another. Yorkston’s soft, earthy vocals are lifted by layers of strings, which slow to a strum in a chorus which winks at a classic period of British folk, à la the Incredible Sting Band.  However, the standout of these three spoken word songs is the quite wonderful My Mouth Aint No Bible, the album’s first single.  This is a relentless, almost hypnotic 6.54 minutes of layered strings, marching percussion, and cynical musings. Expect a psychedelic, almost oppressive experience that is genuinely engaging.

Largely due to the often-difficult subject matters of The Route to Harmonium, a feeling of melancholy is always lying dormant, just below the surface, and at times presenting itself with a knowing nod on tracks such as Bees to Foxglove or The Villagers I Have Known My Entire Life.  Despite being bleak at times, and focusing on themes of mourning and sorrow throughout, it is a feeling of hope, acceptance, and looking forward that radiates from the recordings more than anything else.  

The album ends with the relatively upbeat and positive A Footnote to an Epitaph, wherein James declares ‘I wish you were here every single one of you, but when I think of you, I think of you happy; I think of you well’. A sincere, almost homely record, that prompts you to open your windows and start embracing the approaching spring.  James Yorkston has been putting out phenomenal folk records for many a year now and his latest should be considered up there with the best he has made. A sincere, thoughtful and, dare I say, wonderfully soulful set of songs.

Words by Mike Hull.

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