Ploughing a distinctively folk favoured path since he signed to Domino and released Moving Up Country back in 2012, James Yorkston is now up to album number nine with the same label. That total doesn’t including the two recent albums of folk-world fusion music as one-third of Yorkston / Thorne / Khan, along with his recent forays into the world of prose, via his 2016 novel Three Craws.
Produced by Yorkston and David Wrench, it is Yorkston’s first solo record since 2014’s Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society (CRAWS). Almost entirely recorded by Yorkston himself, in the small Scottish fishing village of Cellardyke, where he lives, The Route to the Harmonium is intensely personal, often about times gone by, about friends and family, past and present, those that have remained and those who have left, and how time seems to be warp speeding ahead. Overlaying basic vocal and guitar tracks, he further added musical exotica such as dulcitones, harmoniums and autoharps, along with a nyckelharpa, the distinctive Swedish stringed instrument given to him by a friend.
However, while there is a distinct sound to Yorkston’s music, via his gentle vocal, and finger-picking folk style, The Route to the Harmonium sounds like it was made within turmoil, and unease. Not only is there a new found musical denseness, the atmosphere is audibly claustrophobic, aided by his continuing fondness for ambient room sounds, and tape hiss. Moreover, the songs are filled with a bleakness not readily found within his work, his characters taking on a troubled bearing, at odds with the apparent idyllic. It’s most apparent via the intense military beat of ’My Mouth Ain’t No Bible’, accompanying a more angry and darker Yorkston than we are used to, via a long spoken word monologue, written through the eyes of a departed friend: “So, what happened? Well, my mind just cracked, but unlike our Lenny Cohen no light got in, just dark,” he sings, possibly in reference to Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker.
There are two further songs that feature spoken word interludes. ‘The Irish Wars of Independence’ is also part drone, as Yorkston tosses out cutting lines such as: “I wasn’t caught up in the wars of Irish Independence, except by the noose of a religion, hung around the neck of a gullible schoolboy”. While ‘Yorkston Athletic’ is manically driving, a rhythmically raw electric guitar at its roots, as Yorkston talks, with bitter nostalgia, about his youth, and fishing, and its allegories: “We were as free as the air.”
Elsewhere, the gloom is not so easily lifted, whether it’s through the densely dreamy folk rhythms of ‘Your Beauty Could Not Save You’, one of several songs that feature the muted, jazzy trumpet of Tom Arthurs, or the twisted yet gently swaying ‘Like Bees to Foxglove’, about mistakes and redemption. Then there’s more regret via the gorgeous musical folk repetition, and chugging rhythms of ’Shallow’, Yorkston lamenting: “There are years, there are still years, that could have been ours.”
These are, despite the melancholic/bitter darkness at their heart, all musical triumphs that point to Yorkston’s ever inventive and melodic musicality. Elsewhere, Yorkston keeps it relatively simple, via the faintly rustling melancholy of ‘The Blue of the Thistle’, the nyckleharpa-led ‘Solitary Islands All’, the piano balladry of ‘The Villages I Have Known My Entire Life’, and the cinematic lullaby of ‘Brittle’.
Above all, Yorkston is a storyteller. Here, however, he may not be in quite the warm spot of previous times, his bleak and brutal outpourings a little disarming. Though, hey, we’re all allowed a little space to wallow at times, to lash out even. As he sings on the slightly distorted yet stunning ‘Oh Me, Oh My’, about broken love: “You taught me all the most beautiful songs, but they soon became alive…. and all the common sense there is cannot save a man from this.”