Seth Lakeman is best known for his clean vocal tone, impeccable double-stopped fiddle playing, and his taste for recording in unusual locations. This album delivers all three and is recorded in the Great Hall of a Jacobean manor house. True to its name, it contains mainly ballads, with a heavy bias towards stories involving death.
Ballads of the Broken Few launches head first into the mysteriously menacing ‘Willow Tree’, the story of “how a man was taken, down to the roots below”. It shows off that double-stopping for which Lakeman is famed, along with his signature stomp that drives the whole piece. But what’s new is the introduction of vocal trio Wildwood Kin, whom Seth had met at a local charity concert. They introduce the song – I can’t help but wonder if Lakeman had consciously had them be the first voices heard on the album in order to make a statement on how this album will be different from his others. The two Key sisters Emilie and Beth, along with their cousin Meghann Loney provide the chords to the song where perhaps Seth might have used his favoured tenor guitar in the past. The trio weave in and out of the music, resulting in a wonderfully balanced piece that provides real power.
Immediately after the menace of the first track, Lakeman opens up to us with the wonderfully intimate ‘Silence Reins’, in which he mourns “I’ll go, I’ll set my spirit free, let me go now where the silence reins”. The four voices are backed here by a sole viola, a wonderful dose of simplicity allowing a stripped back sound that perhaps nothing else could deliver. However, this comes at the cost of lacking a distinct identity for the song, as Silence Reins and the later ‘Stranger’ find themselves sounding very alike – although the latter does have, of note, a nice ‘vocal solo’ bridge and, of course, a woeful lyric.
The album also sees Lakeman gritting his voice somewhat, and adding stylings that I haven’t personally associated with him so much in the past, although he generally continues to deliver his signature clean but powerful voice as always. ‘Anna Lee’, as sung by Levon Helm, shows this grit more than any other, as he sings the story of the title character who is drowned and leaves her children behind after ignoring natures warnings of a storm. It is softly accompanied by a fiddle and again by the wonderful voices the trio. This sparse accompaniment provides a wonderful amount of space for the voices to come across intimately and yet still with power, with the girls providing some impressive dynamics thanks to the lack of instrumentation. It is followed by ‘Innocent Child’, which takes its power, by contrast, from the full band accompaniment of driving stomp and percussion, double bass and tenor guitar. Here, too, the harmonies from Wildwood Kin allow the vocals to swell with the band allowing the sound to intensely rise and fall.
Ballads of the Broken Few is finished off by the a cappella ‘Bury Me Deep’, in which the protagonist tells his father and his loved ones that he is “tired and weary,” and soon will die, and pleads “When you lay me down, don’t you bury me deep”. There is a tenderness and fragility to the harmonies which beautifully match the lyrics and leave the album finishing as lightly as it began darkly.
When producer Ethan Johns received the ‘roughly recorded demo’ made on Lakeman’s mobile phone of him and Wildwood Kin – as the press release notes – he made a wise choice in asking the folky to complete a full album. The result of the collaboration between the two is something brimming with tenderness and sincerity, while also offering up a fair dose of dark menace. It will surely become a highlight in his growing catalogue.
Ballads of the Broken Few is to be released on digital platforms, vinyl and CD on September 16th by Cooking Vinyl.