Ever since his Mercury Prize nomination for Kitty JayM
in 2005, Seth Lakeman has cut a striking figure in conventional folk circles. Loved by traditionalists for his characterful voice and mastery of the fiddle, banjo and viola, his ear for pop melodies–and his good looks–have also won him a faithful wider audience. Five albums into his career, Hearts and Minds
follows the lead of 2008's Poor Man's Heaven
, which introduced rockier rhythms and pace to his music. But now he has gone even further–so much so that he now hardly sounds like a folk artist at all.
The title-track begins the album with a bang. Fierce, heavy drums and a thick, dirty bassline – played by a barely recognisable, growling violin–drives its head-banging beat. Lakeman tells us to "rise up" and feel the "weight of the government's hands", with his protest sounding much more like the work of Muse than Ewan MacColl. "The Watchmen" is a hymn to escapism full of "come ons" and "yeah yeah yeahs", while "Tender Traveller" builds cacophonies of double-stopped strings and struck banjos, as Lakeman sings about "choking" and things "closing in". His statements about Hard Working Men and Preacher's Ghosts can sound heavy-handed, and not unlike the songs of Mumford & Sons. Nonetheless, the way in which acoustic instruments are used to create intensity is very impressive, with the production work of Tchad Blake (whose credits include Tom Waits, Crowded House and Elvis Costello) deserving of praise.
Lakeman's songs are better when they are simpler and gentler, however. "Tiny World"'s lovely lyrics about a girl he's left behind for seven years–with "a full heart and a heavy breeze"–lead beautifully into a chorus which is warm, yet anthemic. "Stepping Over You" shows how moving his playing can be when it is given space to shimmer, while "Changes" uses pizzicato and col legno effects–plucked strings and bows being struck against the wood of an instrument–to create fascinating yet accessible and very lively textures. If Lakeman truly wants to be entertaining and innovative in the future, he would do well to follow this path, rather than revel in rocky rowdiness that will soon tire of clamour.
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