Most folk music draws its poetic inspiration, if any at all, from 17th and 18th century line ballads and romantics, so much so that Wordsworth sees a starving girl leading a heifer by a rope tied to her arm . by Sue Harding Darkness roots it in a later canon: Matthew Arnold’s Withdrawing Sea of Faith Dover Beachthe ebb of the whole Victorian age in Thomas Hardy The dark thrush. (And the mood in which Keats hears his nightingale.) This is the West Country singer’s second solo album: where the first, from 2016 Flightshowed a love of Americana, Darkness is largely an exploration of English tradition and landscape, drawing on the literature she studied at university.
Her Dover Beach equivalent is Clovelly, the North Devon tourist trap where she spent “a beautiful day in the midst of an otherwise disastrous relationship”. Beth Porter’s cello rises and falls in a gentle swell and Harding sings of the country like a “jewel in the whispering sea/in a shimmering greenish blue”. On “Fallen”, we are still in Arnold’s world, “drowned in a starry sea. . . how we stumble in the stony place.
Key to the album are the next two songs, “New Moon” and “Catherine Street”. In the first, Harding watches the night over the rooftops of Frome and ponders new beginnings, the music rising to a crescendo and then fading again. The latter is an explicit interpretation of “The Lady Of Shalott”, the endless weaving of Tennyson’s protagonist transformed here into a metaphor for female creativity.
Harding’s guitar patterns reflect the long needles that make lace. There’s a slight throwback to Americana in the musical bounce and vocal intonation of “Silver and Dust”, but the lyrics are weird old Britain: “Seven black birds flying, dark against the grain”; “Bluebeard in his castle. . . trying to hide his face. Then, echoing Tam Lin and ancient Fairy myths, “my tender lover sleeping, like a lily under the hill/all dressed in green”—her voice is a whisper—“the cruel greedy queen/dark dreams, oh she still has it.
Leonard Cohen is the presiding spirit on “Hydra”, his stories burning the darkness. On “Dryad’s Love Song”, the touchstones are Kenneth Grahame and CS Lewis, this English Arcadia where the shadows hide, the music a mottled amalgam of Nick Drake and Virginia Astley. We close in the rustic country of “The Birchwood”, with moths, owls, sweet-eyed deer and nightingales.
‘Darkness‘ is self-published by Sue Harding