Review: The Unthanks’ “Sorrows Away”

With Sorrows Away, The Unthanks have graced us with their most extraordinary record to date, a momentous album from one of the greatest folk bands today.

Sorrows Away, the latest album from The Unthanks, not only marks a welcome return but also brings one of their most extraordinary albums to date.

For many, The Unthanks’ ‘Mount the Air’ (BBC Folk Album Of The Year 2015) marked a significant transformation in their music, balancing the orchestral with the intimate for which they have become masters. The dynamics at the core of what is one of the most distinctive-sounding bands around appear to have not really changed. Still at the heart are two sisters, Rachael and Becky, with their uncanny blend of familial harmony singing.

Whether it is due to the interlocking of accents, years of attunement and paired practice or rather down to genetic similarities in tone; together they are heard as one strain, tight-knit like the double helix braiding of DNA. 

David Weir, Folk Radio

If the sisters are the heart, Adrian McNally, as once mentioned on these pages, is like the vessels, the veins and arteries down which the music flows to the limits of its creation. At the same time, Niopha Keegan, Chris Price, Lizzie Jones and the others who make up the band put the flesh on the bones. What’s most remarkable, though, is that they somehow manage to reinvent themselves on each album. Adrian McNally once told us:

…we constantly demand that we reinvent ourselves as a band in order to become ‘different bands’ – one which is the right sort of line-up or ensemble to perform and re-imagine the next project which is invariably unrelated to the last incarnation.

This is, in part, what makes a new album from The Unthanks so highly anticipated and welcome. Since Mount the Air, they have delivered some remarkable gems. In 2017, as part of their Diversions series, they introduced us to the simple, personal, and universal wisdom of the songs and poems of Molly Drake, while their 2019 Lines project, a trilogy of albums, offered three discrete song cycles inspired by poetry, the principal link between them being their focusing on female perspectives across time.

Sorrows Away not only marks a welcome return, it’s also one of their most extraordinary albums to date. Of the ten tracks on the album, eight are traditional folk songs to which they bring their unique interpretations; these are, in turn, beautifully complimented by a new song written by each of the sisters.

The album boldly opens with two tracks of nearly eight and nine minutes. The Great Silkie of Skull Skerry, followed by The Sandgate Dandling Song, a moving song over which the threat of domestic abuse lingers. In a stunning duet with Rachel, Adrian McNally (producer and band leader) sings a new self-written verse as the voice of Johnny, promising his children that he’ll soon be home to mammy and that “I’ll not be drunk, I’ll not be bad, I’m not like him, me canny dad, you’ll see I’ve changed this time for good…”. The recording is full of cinematic string swells that heighten the emotion while the royal brass melodies tie the song to its industrial northeast roots.

McNally, the mastermind behind the production, has fully realised the sound he has been cultivating for the band over the last several years. We heard glimpses of it in The Lines (2019), an ambitious crafting of genres reminiscent of Sigur Rós and The Cinematic Orchestra, with influences of jazz, post-rock, electronic, orchestral and minimalism. It’s perfectly exemplified in Old News (written by Becky Unthank) which begins with a soaring cacophony of drums, brass, woodwind and strings, and over the top, a soft, silky chorus singing a hopeful and triumphant melody. It’s a thrill to the ear, equal parts inspiring and joyful.

This is complemented by a song by Rachel Unthank, Isabella Colliery Coke Ovens, written in a style so timeless it’s hard to differentiate it from some of their traditional renditions. A touching song that offers light and optimism as of a spring walk among the ruins of the old Northumbrian colliery.

This must be the most imaginative and contemporary version of The Bay of Fundy ever to have been recorded. Written by American folklorist Gordon Bok in 1975, it is a song filled with drama, making reference to the bay, which has the highest tides in the world, prone to freak weather conditions and deep fog. After the chorus, the musicians glide into an ambient breakdown, the brass melody supported by a minimalistic synth, shimmering strings and a catchy drum fill.

There are also moments to remind early fans why they first fell in love with The Unthanks. Singing Bird opens with an organ and the stark, lone voice of Niopha Keegan painting a bucolic landscape with this old love song, “But there’s none of them can sing so sweet / my singing bird / as you”. A trumpet solo by Lizzie Jones allows for a moment of reflection between verses. This rendition is performed with such tender beauty it sends a shiver down the spine, and if any of the songs here bring a tear to the eye, this one will.

Waters of Tyne continues in this very stripped-back way. The chords of this traditional folk song (originating from The Unthanks’ north-east roots and first collected as early as 1810 by John Bell) are played on a guitar that calls to mind the delicate playing Paul Brady. Subtle found sounds of nature contextualise the watery setting, providing a stage for the solo voice to sing its message of longing “I cannot get to my love if I would die / for the water of Tyne runs between him and me”.

The tunes of this album feel as though they have been very carefully and intentionally selected as a balm for all of us emerging from the pandemic. Ancient messages of separation, longing and grief have a whole new meaning in the context of our collective experience of lockdown.

The most vital sense of healing comes at the record’s close, with the title track Sorrows Away (Love is Kind); the song combines two traditional songs, one, commonly known as Thousands or More, with a lesser-known Irish song, Love is Kind which has been performed by the likes of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – it also featured on Lankum’s debut album Cold Old Fire. The pronunciation ‘ee-hah-wah’ (meaning “goodnight”) after passing through many hands, has turned into ‘heave-ah-wah’ and is chanted in a moment of stillness, before the ultimate album-end. Soaring strings, crashing drums, woodwind and brass; the whole ensemble gives it their all while a chorus sings “Sorrows Away! Sorrows Away!” half wish, half instruction.

The Unthanks have graced us with their most extraordinary record to date. It is a tonic to lift the spirits and marks a momentous moment in the career of one of the greatest folk bands in the UK today.

Sorrows Away is out today, 14th October 2022.

Order via The Unthanks website

Source: The Unthanks – Sorrows Away

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