Review | Songlines

Old Wow

Top of the World

Rating: ★★★★★

View album and artist details

Album and Artist Details

Artist/band:

Sam Lee

Label:

Cooking Vinyl

March/2020

The old wow never wears thin,’ Sam Lee sings in ‘The Garden of England’, the opening track of his prodigiously ambitious third album. It is a fitting beginning, a radical reworking of ‘The Seeds of Love’. This was the first song collected by Cecil Sharp from, wonderfully, a gardener called, even more wonderfully, John England, and which kick-started the folk revival of the early 20th century. The title came to Lee when, walking in the wilds of Scotland, a buzzard swooped and screamed just above his head, giving him a sudden sense of wonder and connection with the natural world. Lee uses the term ‘old wow’ to describe this enlightening realisation – what the religious (and James Joyce) call an epiphany. Lee's epiphany also describes, he says, ‘those experiences which exist beyond the natural realm which are often described in our folk songs.’

Old Wow explores this in an album of three sections. The first, Heart, comprises four very different songs – ‘The Garden of England’, which speaks of the cycle of life, decay and renewal; followed by the spiritual ‘Lay This Body Down’, ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ and ‘Soul Cake’, fusing a song sung on All Souls' Day with ‘Green Grow the Rushes’. Next comes Hearth, with that great song of the prodigal father, ‘Spencer the Rover’, followed by ‘Jasper Sea’ in which a father and son are drowned, and ‘Sweet Sixteen’, recounting a teenage pregnancy and abandonment (it isn't so sweet after all). It suggests that the hearth as somewhere safe and warm is not always obtainable. In the third section, Earth, Lee sings of the fragility of that which bestows such an epiphany. ‘Turtle Dove’ is a lovely song in which the bird is a symbol of love and parting. Since 1995 the UK turtle dove population has plummeted by 94%, so Lee is also singing about that. ‘Worthy Wood’ is a lullaby. These are often double-edged (‘when the bough breaks the cradle will fall…’) and Lee sings this as a troubled contemplation of the world the little one will inherit.

Old Wow is produced by Bernard Butler, who weaves wonderful soundscapes – with Matthew Barley's cello, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh's Hardanger d'amore, the voice of Elizabeth Fraser, Misha Mullov-Abbado's bass and percussion – and Lee wanders around these, as he might in the wilds of Scotland. He rambles a bit slowly, but sometimes Old Wow swoops down and suddenly everything becomes intense and clear.

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