Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
When Shirley Collins first returned from nearly 40 years of obscurity, she came carrying darkness. For two decades, from the late ’50s until the end of the ’70s, Collins was a star of the resurgent British folk scene, her voice as soft and strong as a single ray of sunshine cutting through dense fog. She was adventurous, collaborative, and scholarly, having accompanied former partner Alan Lomax on foundational field-recording treks through the American South and returned to become one of England’s most vital links between past and present. But the trauma of a bitter divorce left her unable to sing, so, like several of her contemporaries, she retired from music for almost half a century. On Lodestar, her dramatic 2016 return, she favored folk standards of deceit, disappointment, and death. Babies were thrown overboard. A woman found her drowned lover only to die alongside him. Even “Old Johnny Buckle” turned his back on his wife to drink with the devil.
A hum of existential anxiety again permeates Heart’s Ease, the second album of Collins’ relaunched career. A steam-powered icebreaker gets trapped in the Arctic waters above Canada. A young lover mourns her beloved dead sailor. A pair of star-crossed, would-be lovers eternally join one another only in the graveyard. But on these 12 elegantly rendered songs—taken from the crowded pews of Alabama and the rugged hills of Arkansas, from the country spreads of England, and the archives of Collins’ own family—she offers visions of beauty and hope, her voice full of the kind of experience and nuance that foster trust. Even life on that icebound ship from “Locked in Ice,” which is “doomed to travel endlessly,” seems tolerable: “Where the ice goes, I go,” she sings with a calming sense of acceptance.
Collins, who turned 85 this month, sings brightly of wishes for the new year during “The Christmas Song,” where the steel strings of an acoustic guitar chime like a parlor’s harpsichord. “Wondrous Love,” learned from the Sacred Harp singers of the Deep South, sees death as the conduit to eternal liberty, not an end; Ian Kearey’s slide guitar nods toward the Delta blues, acknowledging both the provenance and staying power of such spirituals. But there’s nothing more redemptive and affirming here than “Sweet Greens and Blues,” four verses written in 1965 by Collins’s first husband, Austin John Marshall, about their budding domesticity. Collins handed the words over to Kentucky guitarist and archivist Nathan Salsburg and asked him to write something new. His sparkling accompaniment is as open-hearted as Collins’s reflection here, parallel rivers gliding to the same unseen point on faith. “If we don’t make it this year, see what next year can bring,” she sings; though weary, it sounds as if she might be smiling. Right now, it’s a welcome bit of assuring wisdom.