“Sometimes you say things in songs even if there’s a small chance of them being true. And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true.”
Bob Dylan - Chronicles
I’ve been haunted by James Varda’s new album The River And The Stars for just over a week now. First time I played it I sat in silence for a long time afterwards. I wanted to listen to it again, but couldn’t for a day or so. I had to wait until someone else was around.
You wouldn’t think that The River and the Stars is Varda’s first new music in nearly ten years. Or that here was a folk singer, poet, songwriter, guitar player whose first album – the John Leckie produced Hunger – was released 25 years ago. Since the success of Hunger, Varda has essentially avoided the commercial grind of the music industry. Its belated successor In The Valley was released in 2004. But as he told Time Out’s Ross Fortune at the time, ‘I never stopped writing songs’. As an advert for quality control, it’s hard to fault.
Inspired largely by the landscape of Dedham Vale in Suffolk, the songs on The River And The Stars are imbued with a sense of the natural world. There are cascading images of water – lakes, rivers, rapids and oceans and at the centre, Varda like a traveller with one eye on the horizon and changes in the weather. These are songs of summer turning to autumn; of dark nights and quiet desperation; of an enduring love that shouldn’t be taken for granted, songs of family, longing for peace and reconciliation with its absence.
The sky is unfolding
And still we cling to things
That were never ours to hold …
The Plan Is Unfolding
Musical comparison with Nick Drake might seem lazy and obvious, but songs like Along The River (a distant cousin to 1987’s Sunday Before The War) and The Path Is Growing Deep share something of Drake’s timeless beauty. Varda’s acoustic guitar is ever present. Add to that the rich colours of Laura Jane Davies’ backing vocals, Robin Ashwell’s viola, Fliss Jones’ harp, piano and accordion, and co-producer Bugs’ drums and percussion, and here is an album with depth that unlocks its secrets with each repeated listening.
As always, Varda’s poetry is pure and true at the heart of things; but there’s a moment his voice seems to catch on the album’s closing track, also called The River And The Stars. You sense something deeper; as if somehow this is a letter to the future, a poem cut off mid-sentence, an unexpected fade out that leaves a question mark.
Sometimes, as Bob says, songs ‘say things everyone knows to be true’. But it’s a rare gift to say them in such a way that they take your breath away. The River And The Stars is a great album. I can’t recommend it enough.
The River And The Stars is released on Small Things Records and is available from amazon and James Varda’s website. HERE