Words by Tim Cumming
Alongside Sam Lee and Alasdair Roberts, Emily Portman is one of the great interpreters of traditional ballads from the magical end of the spectrum. Coracle, her first entirely self-penned set of songs, draws from that tradition, with her trio of Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton augmented by fiddler Sam Sweeney, drummer Toby Kearney, and others. Opening song ‘Darkening Bell’ was inspired by a Neolithic burial chamber in Gap Cave, Wales, and her lyric melds the experience of visiting the ancient burial site with the story of the burial itself. Further in, ‘Brink of June’ addresses the arrival of her firstborn child, and the heartstoppingly beautiful ‘Borrowed and Blue’ is, perhaps, Portman’s postpartum response to the bleak ballad ‘The Cruel Mother’. ‘Coracle’ moves from the ancient sailing craft of its title to imagery of nests and cradles, while ‘Eye of Tree’ draws its magical potions from the traditional supernatural ballad ‘Tam Lin’.
Portman’s voice is strong and clear, and the musical settings quietly beautiful. As a lyricist, Portman’s command of arresting metaphor and narrative is unsurpassed by pretty much any contemporary songwriter bar Alasdair Roberts, with whom she performs in the group The Furrow Collective. Coracle is, without doubt, one of the folk albums of the year.