Jim Moray’s last album, Skulk, was undoubtedly a fine achievement. It showed a refinement of his talent for giving traditional songs a new setting, his eye for a clever cover, and his skills as an arranger. The only thing more astonishing than the epic, beautiful Lord Douglas – to pick the obvious (but not only) highlight – is that it doesn’t overwhelm the tracks around it.
But, believe it or not, that was four years ago. It doesn’t feel like Moray has really been away: he’s been gigging regularly, producing, popped up on the Elizabethan Session project, and most notably teamed up with Sam Carter to form folk rockers False Lights, whose Salvor album was FW’s joint favourite last year.
But what impact has all this had on his solo career? Well, Upcetera, which was released in September, takes the Skulk template and builds on it. With False Lights satisfying Moray’s foot-on-monitor urges, he’s produced an album of intelligent, grown-up folk-pop. Galloping opener Fair Margaret and Sweet William recalls the thrilling Lord Willoughby from his eponymous 2006 album, and also underlines his storytelling skill. And his talent for delivering drama – particularly tragedy – remains undiminished. The soulful Another Man’s Wedding positively aches with tension and woe, while The Flying Cloud’s unfolding disaster is as compelling as it is laden with bad choices and a creeping sense of doom.
Musically, Moray has worked hard to find sounds that suit him (and serve the songs) well – with a classical sensibility infusing the album. Michael Nyman is an obvious reference point, but there’s also something of the grandeur of a Divine Comedy or a Rufus Wainwright in many of his orchestral arrangements, and also his willingness to embrace different musical styles. The slinky (sexy, even) Foggy Dew is my favourite, marrying fado with a yearning string backdrop, while Eppie Moray shimmies in on an outrageously enjoyable jazz-funk shuffle. This confidence carries over into his singing, too – expressive and emotional without ever going over the top.
The most obvious new string to Moray’s bow is in the songwriting department: two original pieces make a big impact on Upcetera. The Straight Line and the Curve – an enigmatic song about the equally enigmatic mathematician/astronomer/occult philosopher John Dee – was conceived for the Elizabethan Session but feels just right here, while the acoustic-driven Sounds of Earth – ambitiously attempting to convey a moving romance as well as a complex, fascinating historical tale – does so with elegance and intelligence. But alongside the originals and little-known trad songs there’s room for a ‘classic’, too: finale Lord Franklin is a chilly story warmly told.
His Low Culture podcasts – a must-listen for folkies, regardless of the guest – have given great insight into Moray’s interest in process, and how every note and syllable is carefully considered. In this album it shows, but beyond the craft and consideration there’s a serious serving of heart and soul, too. As catchy as it is clever, Upcetera is simply essential listening.