Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), and Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, The National) formed Bonny Light Horseman in 2018 after being invited to play at the Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin. The success of this show led them to an artist’s residency in Berlin, during which their self-titled debut began to take on a more solid form.
The record blends traditional folk songs, reworked and rewritten to various extents, with a modern flavour, giving them new life and new relevance. At its heart, this is an album of contradictions; tradition and modernity, old and new, the temporal and the timeless. Folk music itself is comprised of contradiction. One aspect of folk music is its transcendental appeal to universal human truths. However, an equally important aspect is that it is grounded in very real and very particular times and places. The endeavour to ‘update’ folk music, then, seems on the one hand challenging yet necessary. On the other hand pointless, or perhaps even impossible. Quite a challenge for an album, perhaps, and yet Mitchell, Johnson, and Kaufman manage it with poise, heart, and beauty.
The trick is not to ‘update’ the traditional, but rather to harness the fundamental truth at its root. The retelling of this truth in your own authentic voice will make the music more modern by virtue of your own modernity, but will retain the essence of the original music. This is how Bonny Light Horseman manage to walk a strange line between old and new in such a genuine way. Johnson has said himself that this is a record about timeless humanity. Mitchell describes the act of performing them as ‘reenacting ritual’. This is the heart of the record: folk music can’t be ‘updated’ because the timeless humanity at its core is constantly relevant, but it can be re-voiced and reformed and those timeless truths can be revealed in beautiful new ways.
The sound of the record itself is ethereal and haunting. It is built on the idea of space. Right down to the chord voicings, Mitchell has said, they wanted a feeling of openness, and they have achieved it. The music is stripped back but still fills the space magnificently. The vocals soar above the steady guitars, harmonising beautifully, by turns haunting and joyful. There are a host of unexpected instrumental turns, too, like the saxophone on fifth track ‘Blackwaterslide’. None of these musical injections feel forced, though, it certainly doesn’t feel like a conscious effort to freshen up the traditional material. It feels natural, like everything else on the album.
The beautiful melodies, both vocal and instrumental, the whisper-quiet rhythm section, and the endless space combine to create a truly wonderful record which will stay with you long after you stop listening. The reworking of traditional numbers feels so genuine and effortless that you don’t even think about it. It’s not a research project; these are just songs about being human. Hundreds of years old, and yet still about us, here, now.