Wondrous release from Folk Icon.
Judy Collins is nothing short of a legend, with a recording career that spans seven decades from her first album release in 1961. A masterful picker of traditional songs and with an expert eye for upcoming songwriters – she recorded Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen songs when they were unknown – Judy Collins is also a fine songwriter in her own right. And yet, in all those years this is the first album that she has released which features only the work of her own hand. It’s been a long wait – Collins’ songs have never been the least noteworthy tracks on her albums – but this collection proves it was long overdue. Collins has also pulled off the greatest trick when compared to the majority of her contemporaries – her voice is substantially intact. Not exactly the same as that 22-year-old who gave the world ‘A Maid of Constant Sorrow‘, but remarkably close. ‘Spellbound‘ came together over the pandemic but had its origin in a writing exercise that Collins undertook – to write a poem a day at first for three months but eventually extending that to a full year. With material a-plenty to choose from the winnowing led to a dozen songs that were taken into the studio and recorded live – no file sharing and layer by layer building of songs for Judy Collins.
The focus for a number of songs are, at least in part, autobiographical tales – and that doesn’t imply a simple nostalgia trip, some memories are not comforting. ‘So Alive‘ tells of early Greenwich Village Days and early love, but these are tinged with sadness as she recalls how lives became darkened “then the world was going mad / the sky was overcast / found my peace in whiskey and the poets of the past / you were moving past me through the dark night of your soul.” The more rock and roll follow on to this song, ‘Hell on Wheels‘, tells of a sobering – literally – event: driving drunk and then barely missing two children playing in the road. Some recollections are kinder though, ‘When I was a Girl in Colorado‘ is a wistful acoustic number painting a picture of a blessed upbringing, surrounded by majestic mountains and living a life of safety and support, a feeling that was recaptured on later returns. ‘City of Awakening‘ borders on the orchestral as Judy Collins sings a tribute to her adopted New York, where her adult life emerged and the foundations of her career were laid, the “city of my youth, of poverty and wealth / stripped of roaming figures you are still alive“, not that even this recollection is without regrets “drunk in Greenwich Village / drunk in London town / drunk in mountain cities where the clouds came down.” How many other singers in their eighties are routinely so harsh upon themselves?
But Judy Collins has never been one for letting off the hook – despite her glamorous persona and beautiful voice there’s grit as well. In ‘Thomas Merton‘ Collins sides with those who believe that the Catholic monk and anti-Vietnam War protester was assassinated, asking “why are people so afraid of those who work for peace? / JFK and Dr King prayed for wars to cease.” ‘Spellbound‘ closes out with a “bonus” in the form of a re-recording of Collins’ 1990’s song ‘The Blizzard‘ in the style that has made it a live favourite. It’s a fitting capstone to a sublime album of literate and honest songs that finds beauty in unlikely places and escapes indulgent recollection with a disarming honesty. And Judy Collins’ voice is still a thing of wonder. It’s a career highlight, and that’s no mean feat.