This follow up to The Wide, Wide River didn’t start life meaning to be a sequel to anything. James Yorkston – the now veteran of 10 or so albums, plus collaborations and books – found himself in early 2021 sitting in his studio in Cellardyke, composing songs on piano instead of guitar for the first time. He spent time writing half a dozen songs while gazing out of his window at the sea, before sending them across to Karl-Jonas Winqvist (the brilliant conductor and leader of The Second Hand Orchestra) to see what he made of them. With this fresh approach to writing songs, they discussed what other changes they could make to their process in making music together. This led to the involvement of guest singer Nina Persson of The Cardigans, who fast became a pivotal figure in the recording of The Great White Sea Eagle.
They followed the methodology that they followed on the previous release, entering the studio none of the musicians outside of the trio of Yorkston, KJ and Persson having previously heard any of the demos made, making their arrangements on the spot. Yorkston summarised this himself: “There was no-one who didn’t know what to do. By the time we’d played it three or four times we would hit record and be ready to go. They were all so open, nobody was egotistical. Everything was just so happy. I love the wildness of it”.
A dark humour runs through many of the songs, adding textures to songs that feel light on the surface. There’s a rich texture in many of the messages. Songs touching on grief, family and nature. This is no more evident on the beautiful ‘A Sweetness in You’, Yorkston’s stunning tribute to the Scott Hutchinson, the late singer of Frightened Rabbit – “I think of him often as I look out to the sea”.
Yorkston’s songs have been described previously as sounding like “tales passed down through the generations, even in their deeply personal nature” and such a description could be easily tagged onto the songs on this most humane of albums. There’s also a playfulness to the arrangements, especially on ‘Peter Paulo Van Der Heyden” where Yorkston and Persson weave lyrics in and out of each other, whilst singing about “this foolish heart of mine”. This can also be found on lead single ‘Hold Out for Love’ where the two implore the listener to “don’t sell yourself short, for the sake of the moment”
Overall, The Great White Sea Eagle is a wonderful companion piece to the much celebrated, rightly so, The Wide, Wide River. It wears its heart on its sleeve, the dark cutting through the light and richly awards repeated listens. Everyone should make room for the first great album of 2023. The bar has been set high.