There was that awful moment after Mum’s tiny, emaciated body had been lowered into the cold, hard ground with the St. Michael card I’d blu-tacked on the coffin-lid for protection and company; because we left her all alone in the windswept cemetery. Only when the silence became too oppressive did I force myself up into her bedroom, open the wardrobe door and begin to gather her clothes and other personal effects into cardboard boxes for their final journey to the charity shop in the High Street. Norrie McCulloch is also a member of that club no-one wants to join. He writes with such detail of his experience on Safe Keeping. What to give away and what to keep? He knows the excruciating pain that accompanies this task.
Unsurprisingly, McCulloch’s third album Bare Along The Branches is striated with themes of separation and loss. Norrie’s mother died shortly before going into the studio. As he sings on Safe Keeping: ‘When we are done with all of these tears / and all the grieving / show me a place for all of her safe keeping’.
Turn To Dust is unequivocal in its sober presentation of irrefutable facts: although McCulloch admits that ‘they say time heals the pain’, he also reminds himself and us that ‘even a heart of stone will turn to dust in time’. Its solo acoustic delivery serves to emphasise that finality. As his countryman, James Kelman wrote in How Late It Was How Late: “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That’s the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.”
Lifting the spirits though, is the evocative harmonica intro of Around The Bend with comforting slide guitar, banjo-picking and reflective lyrics. The Heart Of Gold-style harp does indeed revivify after the existential pain of Turn To Dust, where McCulloch, despite his grieving state, exudes a gritty stoicism and acceptance and is able to see through the fog of pain to the future where there will be sunshine and the road carries on.
By way of further contrast and relief, with the jaunty folk-roots grooves of Little Boat you can almost taste the sea-spray, as the wee vessel takes to the ocean and they ‘ride high on the crest of a wave’, sailing swiftly out of the darkness into the moonlight. Some nifty guitar passages and enticing organ make for a swell melange that will make you want to hit the repeat button.
Do you remember when your Mum or your Gran would give you a few bob to go to the sweet shop with? McCulloch captures this so well on Lonely Boy which has a delightfully catchy chorus with lovely backing vocals. Norrie sings: ‘let me live out of your hand / you put the change in my back pocket’, you can just imagine them saying: ‘Away you go, son. Go on and buy yer self a few sweeties,’ as they tuck a few coins into your back pocket. That ‘madeleine moment’ took me right back to my own childhood. Thanks for that, Norrie.
Beggars Woods brings to mind the woods in Robert Frost’s poem Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening:
The Woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep
Perhaps it is the cover of Bare Along The Branches that reinforces that image, portraying the stark Russian winter landscape and a welcoming snow-covered wood. McCulloch has got to keep on keeping on though and sings ‘when this life has got you bare along the branches’, while an electric guitar takes the listener on a wild journey Tom Verlaine and Norrie’s Ma would be proud of.
Your boy has done good, Mrs McCulloch. This one’s for you, my dear. My Mum is up there too. (Love you, Mum. Miss you!) She’ll show you around and look after you. Hope you have a good natter ladies.