Emotion runs high listening to this. It’s seven years or so since Norma Waterson fell into a coma resulting from a leg infection after a concert following the release of their last album together, the majestic Gift. We feared the worst for a while and the likelihood that she’d ever get back in the studio certainly seemed remote. But they’re made of stern stuff those Watersons and, with unfinished business to attend to, Norma regained her voice and, with Neill MacColl and Kate St John converting the old Fisherhead Congregational Church in Robin Hood’s Bay into a studio for the occasion, Norma and Eliza finally continue where they left off with the follow-up to Gift.
But as you’d expect from this family, not one scrap of sentiment is involved in the formidable strength it wields. As the album opens with an eerie bass line, a dark and mysterious melody and Norma’s familiar voice leading us into Tom Waits’ brooding Strange Weather you know that safe and cosy was never going to be an option. And the greatest fear – does Norma still even have a voice? – is instantly blown out of the water.
Then there’s vintage Eliza leading the family on a dramatic, barnstorming Elfin Knight that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wayward Band set, so the rest of the album is no more predictable. A reflectively fragile take on Michael Marra’s The Beast In Me; an object lesson in building tension and passion by restraint on a beautifully weighted arrangement of Pete Bellamy’s setting of Kipling’s The Widow’s Party; a sensitive excursion into show tune territory on Kurt Weill’s Lost In The Stars which – East End piano at full tilt – explodes into a delicious Eric Idle comedy track The Galaxy Song.
Martin Carthy’s presence is felt quite prominently throughout, not least singing with his wife and daughter on KT Tunstall’s acutely poignant Shanty Of The Whale – a song she was apparently inspired to write listening to the Watersons; and revisiting his greatest hit, Scarborough Fair. I could perhaps do without the swing version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Starbut, paying homage to all corners of the vast canvas which has shaped them over the years – Wild Colonial Boy is a tribute to Margaret Barry – the overriding mellowness colludes with beautiful arrangements and the simple power of human voices in inspirational unity to create a very special album.