In a career that’s spanned the best part of 60 years, Heart’s Ease is another triumph in a late-flowering that’s seen Shirley Collins rightfully recognised at the top table of British folk music.
It’s an album that’s a celebration of the working class, the place where Collins has said in interviews where real music comes from, due to the process of being handed down by word of mouth. Songs that involve farming, longing, lost lovers and nature. All in a voice that had been unheard for almost 4 decades before she returned in 2016 with Lodestar, an album that is the centrepiece of the documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins. During those years in the wilderness, Collins spent some time working in the book shop at the British Library. That institution’s loss is definitely the folk world’s gain.
It’s been a little over a month since Bob Dylan and Neil Young sat astride the British album charts at 1 and 2 respectively and the fact that they are 79 and 74 was celebrated. Collins turned 85 earlier in July and her ageing vocals have a croaking warmth that helps the songs bury their way into your heart. These voices won’t be around for much longer and we should all be grateful of the joy they’ve brought us in their lives.
Billy Bragg once described her as “without doubt, one of Britain’s greatest cultural treasures”. That treasure works best here on the new songs, especially ‘Sweet Greens’ and ‘Blues’, written by her ex-husband and devoted to their children. The masterpiece of the new tracks especially is ‘Locked in Ice’ about a woman lost in the cold and unwelcoming sea, but with obvious echoes to her life outside the industry she helped make, along with her late sister Dolly.
Traditional tracks include ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘Rolling in the Dew’ – first found in the 17th century – and some of them are rerecordings of songs that she’s already previously released but they fit well in their new setting. The album closes with a whipping wind and harsh sea crashing against the rocks before the listener is left with an imposing hurdy-gurdy refrain. The song is entitled ‘Crowlink’ and it’s unlike anything else on the album. Her voice is a distant instrument, we are far from traditional folk terrain here and it’s refreshing to see someone push themselves this deep into their career. I guess she’s been making up for lost ground for a while now and has nothing to lose.