Josienne Clarke reclaims her back catalogue.
It has become something of the thing to do when someone has notched up a decade or more in the folk world: put out a retrospective but to distinguish it from the casual “greatest hits” package go back and re-record the songs, putting a new spin on them with new arrangements. Sometimes this is to portray the songs as they have evolved over the years of being played live, sometimes it is to do with dissatisfaction with the original recordings – there was never the time or the money to do them “right.” In Josienne Clarke’s case there’s the additional factor of reclaiming these songs for herself – many of them date back to her duo with Ben Walker, the split of which could be termed to be acrimonious. Add in that even within the duo there was a certain…irritation with the folk world, even as it celebrated and lauded them with awards. Many reasons, then, to revisit these songs.
Josienne Clarke has often had strains of melancholia, and an introspective self-reflection, in her lyrics – ‘Chicago‘ for example which accepts failure “it’s not Chicago’s fault that no-one came to see me play” and responds by clinging to a determination to continue along this life path. These themes are not such a surprise though, given the album’s sub-title of ‘Songs of solitude and singularity‘ – and ‘Homemade Heartache‘ strips the song back to a slightly country ballad with Clarke’s precise phrasing digging into the gloom of an unhappy relationship full of doubts “I’ve a heartache, it’s something that I make / and no matter what I take it won’t go away” she sings, adding “I should release you / But I still hold on to / So sure I can feel you slipping away.” Midway through ‘Onliness‘ there’s a demonstration of how good it can be to completely reshape a song – there’s no tinkering at the edges for ‘Anyone But Me.’ Gone is the melancholic folk ballad, and in comes a full on Decemberists-ish rock song which intensely addresses the obsessive need to control a lover – to the extent that all other connections should be cut away “every person who’s ever meant a thing to you I’d erase them, that’s what I would do/ For how dare you love anyone but me?” It was always a memorable song, now it is the standout on the album. It’s so good that the going inwards and focusing upon oneself of the following piano and saxophone led ‘I Never Learned French‘ seems somewhat slight by comparison.
The album closes with a new song, the brief ‘Words Were never The Answer‘ features just Clarke’s vocal and guitar and sums up one of the drivers for the album “upon my tongue inadequate poetry somehow belongs to me / thought I could write it off / stop the sky falling / what could I control?” It’s an album that can be slightly frustrating – many of the songs are not so very far from their original versions, so other than as an act of reclaiming they add little new and just raise the question “which version do you prefer?“. When the leash is let off though, as on ‘Anyone But Me‘, Josienne Clarke can astonish with the wildness of her abandon. Sure, the album couldn’t solely take that approach throughout, but it demonstrates that there are options other than restraint and quiet introspection.