I’ve got an unsent greeting card sat on the side which reads “I heard you’ve been watching a lot of news lately so here’s a card with a comforting duck on it”. I’ve not sent it to anyone yet because I don’t know where to start. I feel like I need a hundred of them, to send one to everybody I know. I mention this because the release accompanying The Unthanks’ first ‘proper’ follow up to the award-winning Mount The Air in seven years – all those ‘Diversions’ and other projects aside – describes the title track of Sorrows Away as an anthem, a closing prayer to their live performances delivering a cathartic incantation after years of Brexit and Covid. Imagine having written that blurb not knowing the album would be released in a week of economic turmoil and political high drama being compared by those in the business to the Suez Crisis of 1956.
But here we are. Sorrows Away is a comfort blanket in daunting times, but it is not The Unthanks suddenly becoming contemporary songwriters – they reflect the recent maelstrom through reworkings of eight traditional folk songs and one contribution each from the two sisters. The title track combines a tune commonly known as ‘Thousands Or More’ with an Irish song ‘Love Is Kind’ to create what has fast become their new anthem. It serves as the finale to a record which sees band leader Adrian McNally draw on the array of projects the band has undertaken in recent years to stretch their sound – delivering a more cinematic backdrop to the trademark blood harmonies of Rachel and Becky.
The scope of the ambition is clear. Rachel has been singing ‘The Sandgate Dandling Song’ unaccompanied for much of her life, but it has taken until now for McNally to come up with an arrangement he felt befitting of the tune. Against sweeping strings and stirring brass, Rachel recounts this domestic drama with its lingering threats while McNally adds his own self-written verse in which he takes on the voice of Johnny, promising his children he will soon return: “I’ll not be drunk, I’ll not be bad/I’m not like him, me canny dad/You’ll see I’ve changed this time for good.”
It is followed by the more immediate Becky’s contribution ‘The Old News’, penned by Becky, which dazzles brightly under bright brass as she sings: “Did they tell you that breathing is part of the healing?” and the pulsing rhythms of ‘The Royal Blackbird’. Rachel’s composition, ‘The Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens’, stands as a counterpoint, rooted in the Northumbrian tradition which has run throughout The Unthanks’ remarkable career.