It’s been six years since Karine Polwart and her tight-knit trio – which is completed by her brother Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson – have released a studio album. Polwart hasn’t been away – successes since 2012’s Traces include the A Pocket of Wind Resistance project and the Songs of Separation collaborative album – but in these times of political near-meltdown, contributions from a wise head such as hers feel urgently needed, on a regular basis. So October’s release of Laws of Motion – featuring a cover credit for all three members – was warmly welcomed.
Opener Ophelia – with its simple acoustic riff and keening vocal refrain – has a reassuring quality. It’s inspired by the 2017 hurricane of the same name, and sounds as beautiful as the yellow sky the storm conjured above Lothian. But there’s an implicit warning – it may have looked lovely to some, but it claimed 54 lives, too.
And Laws of Motion is an album heavy with shadow. Its title track conjures an apocalyptic world of poverty, “righteousness and slaughter”. Urgent waves of electric guitar and percussion build to a powerful cumulative effect as Polwart asks “who doesn’t want another chance?”. Like much of the album, it sounds big, broad, somehow cinematic – appropriate, considering the big themes covered.
I Burn But Am Not Consumed returns to the subject of Donald Trump, whose destructive golf course/empire building in Aberdeenshire Polwart previously addressed on a song from Traces. Cover Your Eyes is deliberately echoed here, in a choppy, organic remix. With her trademark storytelling verve, Polwart tells us of the president’s Scottish lineage (the song’s title is the motto of his mother’s clan), before going on to address him from the perspective of the ancient rock of Lewis. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off this ambitious narrative approach, but Polwart puts Master Trump firmly in his place inventively, without proselytising.
It is cannily followed by Suitcase, in which Polwart addresses the personal costs and chaos of the pre-Second World War Kindertransport – it’s a song of separation that reflects a glare on to the child-caging US administration. Thomson’s accordion contributes stabs of panic and ramps up the tension in the verses, as Polwart shares a troubling image: “everyone on board grows old”. Young Man on a Mountain, meanwhile, offers another personal perspective on war, giving a voice to Polwart’s grandfather’s unspoken experience of WWII.
In this muddy light, Sydney Carter’s bleak Crow on the Cradle seems an apt inclusion. Steven’s guitar fills the song with nervous energy, while at times Thomson’s accordion sounds – not for the last time on this album – like an alarm going off.
The record’s epic, electrifying closer is shot through with fear, too: Cassiopeia looks back on the nuclear shadow cast over Polwart’s childhood. Inventively deployed samples of the government’s ‘prevent and survive’ public information are chilling – as is the narration from nine-year-old Karine, who tells us of her plan to hide in the jam cupboard.
The album wouldn’t work without its rays of hope – we survived those nuclear scares of the 1970s, after all. And some of Laws of Motion’s stories swell with optimism, for example The Robin, which features another echo from Traces. Like that album’s King of Birds, it reminds us not to underestimate the little guy, and urges us to “have not a heavy heart”. Then there’s Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart, which tells the story of a Japanese gardener who found peace in Scotland having lost his family to an earthquake.
It feels instructive that Cassiopeia closes the album, though: the failure to address past warnings is a repeated theme, and even the record’s more cheerful moments are balanced with loss and struggle. But as its title track insists, “the anchor lines of love and life are deeper than the ocean”. Laws of Motion is passionate and compassionate, as full as heart as it is of telling detail – and works as a persuasive reminder of the power of storytelling. And boy, did we need it in 2018.
Main image credit: Sandy Butler