The songs on this astonishing new album from the 2015 BBC Folk Singer of the Year explore the theme of human interaction with nature which, she says "lies just beneath the surface of so many traditional folk songs". Nancy has cleverly used this theme as the foundation around which to weave less traditional topics such as austerity, gender identity, social justice and women's emancipation, and yet for all the seriousness of the subject matter, the songs are without exception beautiful, delicate and inspiring in their narratives.
Nancy's stellar Sweet Visitor Band provide able musical and vocal backing to her own fiddle and guitar accompaniment, comprising James Fagan on guitars, bouzouki and mandolin, Rowan Rheingans on banjo, bansitar and violins, Greg Russell contributing electric guitar, Tim Yates on bass, Tom Wright on drums and keyboards and CJ Hillman providing 12 string and pedal steel on a couple of tracks.
It is unusual for me to have seen a live performance of an album before reviewing it, but I was lucky enough to catch Nancy and band at Cambridge Folk Festival last month where they impressed me mightily, easing through the set and clearly enjoying the experience. That performance demonstrated that the material is without exception strong, personal and socially important, and the festival audience lapped it up enthusiastically.
The album opens with its title track; a "song about transience and rebirth", says the sleeve notes, inspired, says Nancy, by Rob Cowen's 2015 memoir 'Common Ground'. Its simple hook stays long in the memory after the track has faded; Kerr's pure, clear English vocal - so ideally suited to the genre - weaving the lyric around a guitar backdrop which builds gradually through the verses.
Then we are taken on a breathtaking journey of musical exploration. Through the tongue-in-cheek 'Farewell Stony Ground', through the more traditional paean to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, 'Oh England What Seeds'. Past the glorious tribute to brave women who invoked the Human Rights Act following sexual assault, 'Written On My Skin', and the magnificent comment on gender fluidity of 'Fragile Water'.
'Kingdom', with wonderful bansitar contribution from Rowan Rheingans, is an outstanding piece, decrying the destruction of the land for profit. 'Gingerbread' is a delightful work of contrasts, building from a single fiddle and vocal pairing into an orchestral cacophony, railing against austerity along the way.
'Light Rolls Home' is a jaunty upbeat "love song for the 'bad' end of town" which will have your feet tapping long after the final chorus fades. 'Seven Notes (Adieu My Love)', 'Crow's Wing' and 'See Her Fly Home' are all inspired by contrasting aspects of bird-life, and float ethereally on musical thermals towards the majestic hymnal closer 'Silver Sage'.
'Instar' is quite simply a masterpiece; an outstanding collection with not a single weak link. There are several potential folk classics here, anthems even, and if Nancy is not showered with awards on the back of this album then I will eat a gingerbread hat.
Lyrically inspired, musically stunning, laden with a liberal and worthy helping of challenging themes, this collection reaffirms Nancy Kerr's rightful position as the Queen of the traditional English folk song.
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