Bonny Light Horseman “Keep Me On Your Mind / See You Free”

Jagjaguwar, 2024

Acclaimed trio revel in imperfection to deliver a sprawling unvarnished masterpiece.

artwork for Bonny Light Horseman album "Keep Me On Your Mind / See You FreeThe artwork for the new album from Bonny Light Horseman has a certain predestine feel about it. The original painting hangs from the wall of the Levis Corner Public House, situated in the small village of Ballydehob, County Cork, where the band spent three days laying down the foundation for this, their third album. The woman in the picture had long been christened ‘Bonnie’ by the pub owner’s wife and the decision for it to adorn the album cover reflects the organic spontaneity within the twenty tracks that make up “Keep Me On Your Mind/See You Free”.

From Ireland the trio, Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman, returned to their spiritual home of Dreamland Studio in upstate New York, to complete the recording, which had also been the venue of choice for their first two albums. Now, whereas their eponymous debut had delivered a modern twist to a collection of predominantly British folk songs and their follow-up “Rolling Golden Holly”, which consisted totally of self-penned numbers, were both rooted within the familiar traditional song framework, this third offering displays a collective desire to stretch and push those musical boundaries. More daring in song structure, more open and vulnerable lyrically, it reveals a musical unit at the very zenith of its creativity.

With twenty songs, albeit two are short-spoken interludes, a running time of close to an hour, and a double-headed title, there is every reason to view this offering as a double album, or possibly even two single albums. However, the need to distinguish between where one ends and the other begins is very quickly negated, such is the effortless ebb and flow throughout, each track gently drifting into the next, the quality never waining, with the title tracks topping and tailing the collection. The lyrical narrative of the opening track combines the essence of those old sea shanties, sailors separated from loved ones, with the sense of community and friendship derived from the days in County Cork. The contribution of the locals, their noise, laughter and coughing, like one blessed mess of shared communion, captured and kept throughout an album fiercely proud of its imperfections, both physical and spiritual,

As with their two previous albums, the trio are joined by J T Bates on drums and Cameron Raiston on bass, while Annie Nero is on hand to add some lovely harmonies along with Upright bass, and Mike Lewis who, with his tenor saxophone, provides the most wonderful colour and warmth to the arrangements as well as the intensity found on tracks such as ‘When I Was Younger’. where the narrative focuses on the sacrifices of motherhood, and the achingly beautiful ‘Your Arms (All The Time)’. Elsewhere ‘Hare And Hound’, with its mix of stringed instruments gambols joyously, combining familiar folk idioms with a Middle Eastern flavour, while ‘Rock The Cradle’, opens with a ghostly mandolin refrain, its simple harmony encompassing the heart and atmosphere of those three days on the Emerald Isle.

In truth there are no weak songs, every track warrants its place on this audacious sprawling masterpiece, with its serendipitous blend of emotional energy, tension and release nestled upon a musical fabric that is both experimental and welcoming in equal measure. Rarely has an album felt so accessible and immediate and yet continues to reveal something new over repeated listening. Truly astonishing.

Lying at the very core of these songs is the vocal interplay between Mitchell and Johnson. Not for them the usual pedestrian format of swapping lead and harmony vocals from track to track, but rather within each song they wrap their voices around each other. On occasion one may deliver the opening melody before the other adds a counterpoint, sometimes as a call and response, sometimes as a dual narrative that seamlessly blends into one story and builds to anthemic proportions, such as on ‘The Clover’. and ‘Speak To The Muse’. Throughout the decades there has been many male/female duos that have warranted high praise for their combined vocal prowess, but what Mitchell and Johnson have created here is pure alchemy.

There can be a tendency when reviewing albums to become over zealous in reaching for the superlatives when describing that which has impressed. However, with “Keep Me On Your Mind / See You Free”, Bonny Light Horseman have produced an album that is worthy of the highest praise, stuffed full of modern folk songs laced with a heady mix of glory and chaos that betrays three dynamic and sensitive artists empowered and enriched by one another. Oh, and as for those end of year awards. Well we might as well just hand them out now.

10/10
10/10

About Graeme Tait 132 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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Alan Peatfield

A 10??. What’s all this fuss about Graeme?? Full disclosure … (and whisper it) I’ve never really got into BLH. However, you’ve always produced excellent, reviews and appraisals of albums/tracks/live stuff so it’s incumbent on me to give this a listen and perhaps revisit their earlier efforts. I did recently hear the track “Old Dutch” and was mightily impressed, so ….. perhaps I might become a late(ish) convert. Hope the rest of the Americana UK community don’t ostracise me from their ranks for this “confession”!

David Wedge

In the interests of similar full disclosure Alan, I have to say that I felt the same as you…….at the outset. However, having invested a little more listening time, and financial outlay on their recordings to date, I’m now all in, hook, line, and sinker!

Take the time fella, it’ll be worth it………go on, you know you want to.

Alan Peatfield

Thanks for your “gentle nudge” David. Actually, a similar reason; lack of time invested into quality listening as I was always multi-tasking – fatal for a proper and fair assessment (and enjoyment!) Note to self – follow the mantra “when it’s listening time, it’s only listening time!”