We should be very grateful for the Unthanks. This is the second in what will hopefully become a very long series of ‘Diversions’: albums that exist to fulfil the band’s thirst for experimentation (and fun). The first volume saw two sides of cover versions, the first songs by Canterbury Scene icon Robert Wyatt, the second with songs by Anthony & the Johnsons. Here, rather than cover versions the focus is the collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.
Brass music, although stylistically very different from folk, has effectively served the same purpose: to provide ordinary people with the means to communicate effectively to one another. It has been part of the same social ritual, the creation of music that is not hierarchical but that exists to affirm hopes and fears, and to increase understanding and empathy, especially in the face of hard times. This might be why the brass seems to meld so perfectly into the atmosphere of the songs on this album. Maybe the two musical forms, sprung independently out of the same social need, were always made to find each other again.
Trimdon Grange Explosion is a song about a mining disaster in Durham that is 150 years old. The song mentions people, like Mrs Burnett, who lost her sons in the explosion. Listening to it closely, you feel a fraction, a shard of the feelings she must have felt, warping their way through time and music to soak into the listener’s mind: the unexpectedness of the accident, the daily routine smashed by the tragedy, and lastly the acknowledgement of sadness and death as facts of life that must be struggled through. And the struggle is, if not any easier, at least less painful when the community finds strength each other through song.
Later in The Fathers Suite, a recording of a lone voice, says “I found that I just couldn’t believe in the Bible anymore…” over a lone piano. However the gap is right away filled, once again, with the power of the community to provide empathy: “Morals are social in their origin” says the voice, without any hint of moralizing whatsoever. He doesn’t sound like a moral preacher or a political ideologue because his care for others isn’t rooted, not in any abstract cause, but in humanity. The lone piano drifts into a lullaby that warns against “the dark you find son/ in the depths of some men’s minds son”. In real life there are no demons, no “ogres, wicked witches/ only greedy sons of bitches/ who are waiting to exploit your life away”. The fairytale villains we project onto others exist to conceal a darker, more terrible truth: that the monsters are human just like everybody else. However this is just another part of life in a world where there is “beauty […] to find”. Giving up is not an option.
The songs here are songs of acknowledgement, acknowledgement of life’s hardships, and the struggle of people to survive them, and the ability to find both comfort and strength in others. It’s a perfectly fulfilled, beautiful album that is a both a monument and a testament to the lives of human beings. And that is not something that can be said about the majority of albums these days.