Folly – in all its forms – is a typically interesting theme for Mary Hampton’s second full album. Her fragile, timorous voice and sparing guitar-picking style is not to everyone’s taste, but her intriguing, idiosyncratic approach cannot be disputed.
Opener The Man Behind the Rhododendron shows Hampton to have embraced a rather more expansive sound. Her band, Cotillion, adds stern drums and excitable, almost silly recorder to an eccentric tale of the “Merry Lords of England” variously sleeping in caves, eating chandeliers and “steaming up the Yangtze on an improvised chaise longue”.
Hampton – as much Anne Sexton as she is Anne Briggs – draws inspiration from a wealth of sources. Kiss V, inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s curiously emotional, close-cropped painting of the same name, is one of the album’s highlights, her voice veering towards hysteria in its chorus. No.32 is a setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem; Hampton teases out her verse with sensitivity and a sympathetic fiddle accompaniment.
It’s less easy to picture the inspiration for Hoax and Benison, all clanking piano, stomping feet and lyrical menace – “history’s what you feel like in the morning,” she hisses. But her opaque/oblique lyrics make her the perfect singer of nonsense song – Forget-Me-Not is positively haunted. Hampton’s other traditional reimaginings, a whispery, complex Benjamin Bowmaneer, a joyous live Pear Tree (it’s a bonus track with the download) and a superbly arranged take on Blind Marnie Forehand’s version of Honey in the Rock, show she has the confidence and nous to completely pull apart and reassemble a song in search of her vision. It works perfectly.
Lullaby for the Beleaguered is wonderful, recalling The Coventry Carol with its bewitching lu-le lul-lay refrain. You never quite know what’s going on: “Your bed is green,” it concludes, perplexingly. While the lyrics are a beautiful, poetic enigma, an insistent drone note shoots through the song, with quiet harmonies, solemn strings and late-night-bar trumpet. It’s the attention to detail that adds the final layer though; the overwhelming, curious melancholia is set against the sound of lonely cars swishing along wet roads – typically English, reassuringly sad.
Despite being centre stage, Hampton is somehow peripheral in all this – “I am just a stranger who moves across your eye,” she sings in Hoax and Benison and, indeed, a major part of the album’s appeal is in its essential unknowability. That’s Mary on the cover, sure, but you have to squint to make her out. It’s the album’s pervasive subtlety that elevates it from the status of ‘very good’ to ‘great’. It’s a bit late in the day, I know, but for what it’s worth, Folly is the Folk Witness album of 2011 – by a mile.