A cornerstone of the Scottish folk scene, six times winner at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards along with a host of other accolades, Karine Polwart goes from strength to strength with this magnificent album which is rich in tradition yet speaks strongly to the current times. ‘Laws of Motion’, while not a concept album nevertheless addresses many of the issues which trouble most right-minded folk, using historical themes and personal reflections. Polwart says of the album, “I didn’t set out to write songs on a unified theme – they’ve just landed that way. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the times we’re in.” As such, she sings of the Kinder transport, the underground network which smuggled Jewish children out of Nazi Europe, of her grandfather fighting in Italy in 1944 and then never talking of it, of migrations and flight and, in a powerfully poetic song, of Donald Trump’s Scottish ancestry.
The album takes flight with the hauntingly beautiful ‘Ophelia’, acoustic guitar and accordion treading gently as Polwart sings of the destructive yet mesmerising powers of nature. There’s destruction again on the title song although this time it’s man made and the cause of migration as people flee from the lash. This is a brooding folk rock outing with waves of guitar and crashing drums alongside synth effects reminding one that Polwart and her partners (the album is properly credited to Karine Polwart with Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson) are as adept at creating atmospheric washes of sound as they are at crafting traditional sounds. For a wonderful example of the latter, head to ‘Cornerstone’, a song inspired by a visit to a windswept bird sanctuary in the Firth of Forth while the following ‘Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart’ is simply perfect as it recalls the true story of a Japanese gardener cast ashore in Scotland and who tended his Japanese garden there until his death.
Polwart tackles Scotland’s shame (that the current president’s mother came from the Isle of Lewis) on ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’. A simple spoken word introduction tells of Mary Anne McLeod’s history ending with her son’s desecration of the northeast shoreline in the name of golf. From there the arrangement becomes more complex and even playful as Polwart imagines the ancient rocks of Lewis musing on the president’s hubris and ultimately dismissing him, “these waters, they will rise, the North Sea haar will cover your eyes, despite your disregard for truth and your appetite for lies.” It’s a powerful piece delivered with a wonderful sense of Scots’ couthiness. The closing song, ‘Cassiopeia’, is another adventurous piece inspired by Polwart’s memories of living in a Soviet target area (Central Scotland with petrochemical plants and a nuclear submarine base) in her childhood days. With readings from the official government leaflet Protect and Survive nestled within the throbbing music, Polwart pricks the absurdity of the leaflet with some aplomb but overall the song pales against its predecessors. To her credit Polwart admits that she tried to make the song sound somewhat like Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of The Worlds’, an album which she says, as a child, terrified her.
That said, ‘Laws of Motion’ is a magnificent album and one which confirms Polwart’s standing as one of the major figures in folk today.