Every generation of the Collins family has been carved from the hills of the South Downs, and it is those hills that act as a silent partner and accompaniment for Archangel Hill, the third album that folk queen Shirley Collins has made for Domino Records, since her return to making music after a 40 year gap with 2006’s majestic Lodestar. If that album was about Collins finding her feet again, than the follow-up Heart’s Ease cemented her place at the top of the table, a custodian for old songs to be given new lives. Archangel Hill arrives three years later and shows Collins, now 88, sharpening her gaze across the land that has surrounded her, both literally and metaphorically, for her entire life.
The album is even named with family in mind, Archangel Hill being the name that her stepfather called Mount Caburn, a local landmark close to Lewes, where Collins resides these days. “Whenever I walk…I give a silent greeting in memory of my stepfather Bill and his horses”. This extends to the cover artwork, commissioned by Collins herself, painted by Peter Messer and featuring Mount Caburn.
The songs that feature in this collection are ones that her forebears of the 1950s and 1960s sung and brought to providence and to the attention of the public. Songs from a time when Collins was a young girl herself. She now finds herself in that position, acknowledging the passing of time whilst honouring that curly-haired, bright-eyed lass that previous generations once mentored. A time that Collins wrote about herself in her recently republished memoir America Across the Water.
On songs like the opening ”Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear’ or ‘High and Away’, the sparkle of the teenager still burns close to the surface. Time may have aged the delivery, but it’s also given gravitas to the message and the stories found within the songs. There are highlights galore, but one of my current favourites is the standard ‘Hares on the Mountain’, a song that was also captured beautifully on Fern Maddie’s Ghost Story album last year. The two different versions sit well together and it’s interesting to see two perspectives on the same tale so close together.
All the songs were recorded last year, except for one. After the aforementioned ‘Hares on the Mountain”, the listener is transported to the Sydney Opera House, 43 years ago, where a recording of ‘Hand & Heart’, arranged by her late sister Dolly with words by F.C. Ball, otherwise known as Great Uncle Fred. To be so effortlessly taken across the seas and across the decades and then be delivered back into the warm embrace of the South Downs landscape takes real courage and conviction. Two things that Collins has never lacked. With Archangel Hill, she asks us to pay respect to those who have travelled before. After a lifetime of doing this herself, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.