Saturday, July 27, 2019

Scotland's Music: Laws of Motion from Karine Polwart, Inge Thomson, and Steven Polwart

Through the songs on her album Laws of Motion,. Karine Polwart considers migration, refugees, climate change, war, childhood, uncertainty, trust, and many other things along the way. That catalogue of ideas and questions may suggest that it’d be a grim sort of journey. It’s not. Polwart’s songs are very likely to raise ideas that will stay with you though.

In the song Ophelia landscapes, waters, and skies shift and change -- much as they did in the natural world when Storm Ophelia, to date the word’s easternmost hurricane, brought wild winds, high waters, and in its aftermath Saharan dust filling the skies with haze and strange light, to Scotland and other parts of Europe. Though the song’s name might recall a specific event, Polwart’s poetic imagination takes things beyond one place in time, as does the hauntingly quiet atmosphere she and her long time musical collaborators Inge Thomson and Polwart’s brother Steven bring through backing vocals, guitar, accordion, and other instruments.

Human lives tossed about by the winds of political and social change are the threads with which Polwart weaves the stories in the title song, Laws of Motion. Adults and children on the run for many reasons, seeking safety, seeking hope. Troubles and dangers, yes, but anchor lines of love and light, and hope. As the trio sings, “Who doesn’t want another chance?”

There is change, there is questioning, and there is a recognition of the lasting power of nature to reframe and connect -- these are threads that run through the sound and the ideas on Laws of Motion.

In Cassiopeia, Polwart mixes memories of her childhood preparations for nuclear and other disasters (she grew up in Stirlingshire near Grangemouth) with recordings of official instruction of how to prepare, and takes note that when the grid goes down and human made light goes out, it’s still possible to see the stars. In Cornerstone, she visits the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth through three lives centuries apart, with thoughts on stillness listening, and time. Vivid images and intertwining music make this one of the poetic songs from the trio, on an album well filled with poetry of both lyric and musical sort.

There’s not much stillness to the current US president, that’s true. Polwart addresses this by having a conversation with the ancient rock of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, the place where the president’s mother was born. I Burn But I Am Not Consumed is the title of the song, and his mother’s clan motto. The song was written just as he was coming not office; it still rings true, and to my mind is one of the best, if to the very best, song which has been written about the man and his ideas and actions.

Each song on Laws of Motion (there are more than I’ve spoken of here) is well worth your listening; news depths of ideas and music will unfold as you listen again.

Karine Polwart. comes from a background which includes degrees in philosophy and the teaching of that subject to children, and experience as a social worker. Before setting out on a solo music career she sang with the Battlefield Band and with Malinky. Her own work has won awards; her songs have been recorded by other artists, she’s written music for film and created her own stage project, Perceptive Travel Facebook page. Wind Resistance which later became an album, and collaborated on a children’s book, A Wee Bird Was Watching. Music, social justice, Scotland’s landscape, and ideas from the natural world are of deep interest to her in all her work: she’s been part other collaborative ventures, among them the Darwin Song Project and The Lost Words: Spell Songs.

Forthcoming, at this writing, is her album Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook, her take on pop songs for the last five decades or so that, she says, really mean something. “To me, these are songs of resilience and resistance, cries of despair and dreams of something better,” she says. “They’re pop songs, but also love songs to people and places we all recognise. They totally fill my heart up.”

Word has just come at this writing that Laws of Motion is on the longlist for the SAY Awards, one of Scotland’s top awards for album of the year.

Photograph of Karine Polwart courtesy of Borealis Records.

You may also wish to see
Eight Songwriters and a Scientist: a story about the Darwin Song Project at Perceptive Travel
Scotland’s Music: Karine Polwart: Traces.
Scotland’s Music: Hamish Napier: The River

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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