He’s always had it in him. Jim Causley’s first solo album, 2005’s Fruits of the Earth, featured a few of his own songs. And there was the outstanding Summer’s End, which Jackie Oates recorded for her Violet Hour album of 2007. But Causley has, for the most part, stuck to interpreting the songs and poems of other folk, whether solo or with his Devil’s Interval and Mawkin:Causley projects. Perhaps he was gathering inspiration. For Forgotten Kingdom, his new LP of entirely original material (with one or two traddy borrowings, of course), delivers a weighty 15 tracks over 70 minutes.
Remarkably for such a proud Devonian, it’s the first album Causley has recorded in his home county. He’s certainly been inspired by it. Scholarly liner notes detail the area’s history (and make an eloquent case for a more flexible local history curriculum in schools), but the songs reflect a literary lyricism that really brings it to life.
The characteristically jolly Gabbro Bowl/Peninsula Prayer kicks things off in the Neolithic era, bringing us through Saxon times with a touch of Blow the Windy Morning and a reminder that the kingdom of Dumnonia united the people of what we now call Devon and Cornwall. “The land does not recognise the lines that humans draw,” sings Causley – a line that has plenty of resonance today, of course.
But it’s not a history lesson. The catchy Home stylishly bemoans “period living shabby-chic stuck-up town folk replacing old characters who’ll never return”, while The Pastoria is a powerful ode to the countryside. Seasick, the album’s closer, is a curious ‘anti-shanty’ that references Disneyland and ends with Causley pleading to be buried under the red soil of home, far from the water.
As well as the Westcountry themes, Forgotten Kingdom shares something else with Causley’s Dumnonia album of 2011. Where Cyprus Hill – his album of Charles Causley’s poems set to music, released in 2013 – was a stripped-back, piano-led affair, this is a full-sounding, warmly orchestrated and richly textured record. There are guests aplenty, with Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin adding chaturangui guitar and fiddle to Causley’s cheerful accordion on Back in the Day. Kathryn Roberts lends her voice and piano-playing skills to Reigning Men, which has a fun title but is in fact an accomplished, melancholy duet about the abuse of power. Show of Hands’ Phil Beer and Steve Knightley both make contributions, while James Dumbelton’s melancholy acoustic guitar adds a sophisticated accompaniment to several songs, including the lonesome Banks of the Tale.
Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll – now part of Causley’s trio – make a particularly strong contribution. Their fiddle playing on Pride of the Moor, for example, is lively and imaginative. The song itself is one of the album’s strongest: an anthemic ode to the tin that brought prosperity to many towns across the Westcountry. Causley sings from the point of view of the metal at one point, to hail “the church bells of Dartmoor that sing with my voice”. It’s a canny, romantic observation, and the quintessentially Devonian Causley has a reasonable claim (and I say this as a Devonian myself) to be a modern-day voice of the county. (Check out his Behold! session performance of it, below.)
And what a voice it is. Rich and warm, it’s often described in terms of which delicious foodstuff it evokes – honey, nectar, chocolate, fruity ale… All seem appropriate, but what’s really impressive is his ability to turn it to something as mournful as Goodnight Ballad, or as upbeat and light-footed as the warm and witty Man You Know, which cheerfully celebrates the single life and rejects “marriage clink”.
A couple of songs will be familiar to Causley’s fans. The reflective Rewind – a song of sunshine and cider that featured on Fruits of the Earth – is given an elegiac reworking, with Dumbelton’s lilting guitar again providing a subtle backdrop to Causley’s accordion. Jackie Oates provides fiddle for Causley’s own take on Summer’s End, which also features Lukas Drinkwater on guitar. It’s gorgeous: a superbly sung, bittersweet look back at a doomed relationship with a crisp kiss-off at its conclusion.
So, those 15 tracks cover a lot of ground. Forgotten Kingdom features powerful odes to “old Domnonée”, mournful laments, cheery whimsy, smart storytelling, explorations of relationships… It’s serious, intelligent stuff; personal, political, historical – but listening never feels like hard work. Causley has the charm and ability to – as he does on Road to Combebow – make a fun singalong chorus from what is essentially a list of Saints. With so many guest stars, lesser performers might get lost, but Causley’s personality and songwriting talent sees him shine through. Keep writing, Jim.
Forgotten Kingdom is out on February 19 on Hands On Music