These ‘song project’ albums are very definitely a thing now. Throwing together a group of folkies to write about a certain subject has previously yielded rich returns on the likes of Charles Darwin, Cecil Sharp, the reign of Elizabeth I and the concept of separation. But Sweet Liberties – commissioned this time by the EFDSS and the Folk by the Oak festival – represents perhaps the burgeoning genre’s most ambitious tilt yet.
Can you imagine a trickier subject to address than 800 years of democratic freedom? Let alone in the context of the tumultuous 2016 we’re having?
Well, the project is built on solid foundations, namely its cast. Sweet Liberties – an album conceived as part of an educational drive called ‘Parliament in the Making’ – features an exciting line-up. Sam Carter, Maz O’Connor, Nancy Kerr (an Elizabethan Sessions player) and Martyn Joseph are all prolific, on-form songwriters, while Nick Cooke and Patsy Reid (a veteran of the Cecil Sharp Project) are seasoned and talented accompanists.
And as you’d expect they’ve come up with plenty of material – 14 tracks that mark historic people, laws and moments in our history, but which also go deeper into what parliament and democracy means in real terms, today and in the future. As Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow points out in the album’s sleeve notes: “Folk music has long been a tool of political protest, as well as a channel through which individuals and groups have commented on and influenced social change.”
No pressure then, gang. But the artists’ responses meet the brief. This is serious stuff, with songs about slavery, multiculturalism, women’s suffrage, miscarriages of justice and the decline of trade unionism. And fans of Carter, Kerr, Joseph and O’Connor won’t be surprised to learn that Bercow’s notes are pretty much the only Conservative thing here. This is a decidedly lefty record, though what it lacks in balance it makes up for in harmony.
Kerr’s Kingdom – a bansitar-laced version of which features on her new album Instar – is an appropriately majestic start. Conceived as a meditation on Magna Carta, the song goes on to remind us of an original law – that of the land – which human rules somewhat ironically violate. It’s a complex, nuanced song – which is a good guide for what’s to follow. Later, Kerr experiments with form in Seven Notes, examining colonialism and race relations via a metaphorical cuckoo, and demonstrates on the quirky Lila her eye for a great story.
Maz O’Connor too demonstrates some deft songwriting outside the box, with the likes of the gorgeous Rich Man’s Hill and This Old House, both of which address housing. The former is written (with clever ambiguity) from the perspective of a homeless man potentially empowered by the Poor Law of 1601, while the latter is a clever and tuneful illustration of the art of compromise – something equally key to politics and life.
Joseph is perhaps the most obvious firebrand here, but he’s a canny composer. His Nye – a tribute to (the pretty straightforwardly admirable) NHS founder Aneurin Bevan – is warm and witty, its chorus referencing Bevan’s ‘this is my truth tell me yours’ line that also inspired a Manic Street Preachers album. Joseph dodges straight-up hero-worship by paying tribute to those still helping people via the NHS today. His song Dic Penderyn, meanwhile, pays tribute to another Welshman – a labourer who was involved in the 1831 Merthyr Rising attempt to establish workers’ rights, and who paid a heavy price. If it sounds like hard work, the story is told masterfully, and the balance between Joseph’s earthy voice and Reid’s delightful descending fiddle line is lovely; it’s one of the catchiest things here.
Joseph is also the pen behind Twelve Years Old, a beautiful, duet with Sam Carter. Again, it brings a potentially dry subject – the Factory Act of 1833 – to life via an ingenious approach, imagining a conversation between two children taking place a hundred years apart. Both singers sound remarkably vulnerable as the song comes to what might be an unexpected conclusion.
Carter’s sleeve note for the angry Dark Days coyly reads that it ‘voices a sense of frustration with the political process in recent times’ – but on the road he’s been pretty vocal about linking it to the results of certain votes. This version kicks less ass than the stomping take on his How the City Sings album, but O’Connor’s backing vocal and a sharp fiddle line give it a certain elegant bite.
Carter twice broaches the topic of slavery. Often passed off as an American shame, Am I Not a Man relays the story of a slave named Olaudah Equiano and reminds us “England you need to know all I’ve suffered and seen”. One More River to Cross – inspired by the Slavery Abolition Act Equiano helped achieve – gives the album a cautiously rousing closing anthem.
Thoughtful, lyrical and bursting with ideas, Sweet Liberties has inspired some excellent songwriting, offering more with each listen. Let’s keep these song projects coming!
Sweet Liberties is out on October 7 on Quercus Records