Sharon LewisSharon Lewis
Album: Roses At The Top
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 10

Once upon a time there was a duo named Pooka (active on the Manchester scene), who conjured some of the most seriously enchanting yet haunting and sometimes quite formidably disturbing music of the 90s. When Sharon Lewis and Natasha Lea Jones went their separate ways, it was a couple of years or so before either of them got around to releasing another record. Sharon's home-recorded solo debut, The Hour Lilies, appeared in 2004. Sadly, a copy never came my way, but from what I recall hearing it made capital of simple, uncluttered arrangements that allowed her voice to breathe the intimate vision of her songs unobscured by extraneous then-fashionable soundscapes. On the evidence of that disc's close-on-a-decade-later followup, Roses At The Top, that same modus operandi still holds true for Sharon today, albeit with an enhanced degree of accomplishment and confidence (and restraint) that's clearly informed by her activities during the intervening years, one key experience of which was performing in Ana?s Mitchell's landmark folk-opera Hadestown.

Sharon's new album charts the progress of her psyche as it climbs, transforming itself through stages of pensive reflection, to a realisation that roses do after all grow at the top of the mountain of self-knowledge. It's a metaphor that could so easily sound trite or laboured, but such is the skill of Sharon's word-painting that the emotional honesty of her imagery enables us to share, and empathise closely with, life-struggles that prove common to us all, with promise and desire giving rise to trust and hope.

Sharon's expressive voice is in brilliantly captivating form, conveying both the vulnerability and strength of her resolve and naturally employing her trademark gentle, fragile near-vibrato. And although she engages a full dozen musician friends in support, the various instrumental colours are unfailingly intelligently deployed and with unerring sensitivity.

The journey starts out in intense yearning with the close, touching (in both senses) memory of In That Way, its commanding piano chordings speckled with almost subliminal keening pedal steel and only at the end introducing the bittersweet consolation of clarinet and muted trumpet. On Kings And Queens, the pleading fairytale wishes of those who are weary and forsaken summon forth reflections (in both senses), leading to realisations which bring a new-found defiance that is however ambivalent, even in fulfilling its own inner promise. The theme of awakening - or at least waking up - is then taken forward quite literally on the chirpy, playful Morning Song, ostensibly cheery and breezy but with a distinct ironic overtone of drowsy na?vete, rather like being brought out of a nice dream into the bluesy yet in the end welcome realism of Sweetheart and then into the Waiting Game, which (again through expression of ambivalent or contradictory feelings) provides an early hint of the final flowering of the dreamt-of rose through catchy repetition of received cliché in its choruses. Then, at the album's core, the intensely tender, regretful Those Blues forms a kind of emotional turning-point; this is followed by the knee-jerk, breathy questioning of Sweet Little Lie and the undeniably positive outlook of You Heal Me (perhaps the album's most lushly scored track, with piano, harp, strings, flute and multi-tracked backing vocals), which together enable the final climb to the hard-won summit of self-acceptance that forms the gospel-flavoured apex of the album's title song. The seed has been planted there, and the roses will grow henceforth for all to find - thorns and all, as the concluding, enigmatic and slightly sinister Birds Of Prey rather hints (for all that its closing stanza resolutely proclaims "joy is the only song"). Even so, there's no question in my mind that Sharon's hope for the album, "that it brings healing and comfort to those people who find themselves halfway up the mountain searching for the roses", is abundantly fulfilled; the lasting impression is of a revelatory, and inspirational, experience.

Finally, as if the music and songwriting were not in themselves already a sumptuous feast for the ears and mind, visually the whole CD package is intensely attractive too, the artwork so vividly drawn you can almost smell the perfume of the roses that entwine themselves all over its canvas and inside your very being. Truly unforgettable.

David Kidman