ALBUM REVIEW: Kris Drever – ‘Where The World Is Thin’: a fine, open and wise set from Orcadian folk star

IF YOU’RE a gig veteran, whichever your chosen poison in terms of bands or genres, I bet you can in one sphere break down your gig experiences thus.

Some bands you see – maybe that upcoming, hotly tipped support, you turn to your friends at the end of the night and say: “Yeah, quite fun they were.”

A step above, and you’ve got those bands who really do it for you. Someone asks you the day after: well, how was it? “Yeah, cracking,” your reply.

But then there’s those artists you see, and maybe two or three songs in you realise there’s something more going on. A whole lot more. Be it precision, craft, a line straight to the infinite; that indefinable other thing that lifts the experience of the band you’re seeing to a whole other level of rapture and communal experience; of epiphany, of wonder. You turn to your gig-going friends and say: “[insert favoured expletive] – they’ve really got it.

What is the it? Hard to say. In previous times and other societies, such people would be absolutely seen as channelling from elsewhere. They’d be regarded as seers, wholly and holy connected to something we can only wonder at. The it separates people having a crack with some instruments from well … musicians. Storytellers. Prophets, if you like.

Now for me, that particular category includes artists as diverse as Cocteau Twins, Dirty Three, Low, Osees, Orbital, This is the Kit, Ryley Walker. And, on the basis of having seen him solo and as part of the folk trio Lau, I’d have to include Kris Drever. To use the Eddie Cochran paradigm:  He’s something else.

Now Kris is ready for what is only his fourth full-length under his own name – there have of course, been collaborative two- and three-handers, and his work in Lau, whose last album Midnight And Closedown was released last year and brought a little electronic frisson to its fine folk proceedings.

It’s entitled, evocatively, Where The World Is Thin: a reference perhaps to the odd geographic corners of the land; the forgotten, the unloved. Let’s hand over to Kris to elucidate.

“The album Where The World Is Thin began when I was commissioned to write a song about the sinking of the German High Fleet in Orkney at the end of WWI. 

“I started writing “Scapa Flow 1919” in the summer of 2016; it was intense; I felt as though I had to chase down every fact I could find and consume it to make it right. I didn’t want to sing a song on national radio about such a specific historical event and have it full of holes and errors. I finished it shortly before my wedding in May 2017 and the relief was very real.

“I had no other song projects on my mind during that time, but the eventual sound of that song was a signpost out of that period and back into a creative state of mind. I began sifting through ideas for other songs, collecting experiences and recording short, underdeveloped pieces of music so that I could quickly hold a lyric against them to see if they held something in common. 

“In 2018 I wrote a lot of songs for Lau and so my own songs had to sit untended until we got Midnight And Closedown completed. 

“Then early in 2019 my family and I realised we had to relocate, so Shetland faded from view in August and we landed in Glasgow, and almost as soon as that happened the songs “Where The World Is Thin” and “Hollow Trees” started to feel complete. 

I booked studio time for January and February and by the end of those sessions I had finished writing and recording all but two of the album’s songs (although I still had some wonderful guest musicians to add). Then lockdown hit. 

“How do you write songs with all this madness whirling around you? How do you record when you can’t go into a studio and you can’t play with anyone else? Nightmare!

“Except it kind of wasn’t. Songs came to me in a surprisingly timely way, I often have to wrestle with them for a long time but through one Twitter spat and one friendly poetical musing I was able to write “Sanday” and “Hunker Down” and record my parts at home.

“I’ve never been a diary keeper but I feel like that’s what my albums are. There are more stories and points of interest for me than there’s time to tell here, but going back through them is as vivid as anything exposed in a dark room or captured in frames per second. Songs are snares for memories as well as ideas and feelings.”

Kris Drever, photographed by Genevieve Stevenson

And of course there’s an absolute accuracy to Kris’s musical self-analysis. Take opener “Where The World Is Thin”, a beautiful and romantic song entirely free of any pretence and schmaltz and instead full of the genuine. It comes in on intricate fingerpicking, piano notes picking out melodic highlights as a painter deftly dabs white; “There’s not enough room in the world / To describe the distance I travel / How many steps from your bed … love’s not obliged to make much sense,”  Kris sings, with lofting, wordless harmony vocals providing a lovely, heartsore counterpoint the second time through. 

“More Than You Know” describes the leaving of the life on the periphery; Orcadian, it’s an experience Kris knows well. “When you first left the island / Too young to know you were going for good,” he sings. Strings in sustain bring suspense. “I sat once where you are now / I thanked my stars that I escaped somehow,” is the wisdom imparted.

“I’ll Always Leave The Light On” precedes on a gentle metronomic swing, the fiddles of John McCusker and Christian Sedelmyer in play, skirling with Kris’s guitar. His voice, his lyricism, is entirely his; crafted but unmediated; lacking pretence. 

“Sanday” is a paean to the island; in Welsh-Cornish there’s a concept, hiraeth, which translates roughly as “a nostalgia for one’s own home landscape”. I’m not sure what the Gaelic equivalent is – but there are elements of that here; a place, perhaps, where (this) world is thin. The guitar’s break in a reverb-heavy beauty, akin to John Martyn; the lead figure they pick is accompanied by whistling. It’s emotional and again free of sugary sentimentality, while also offering a hard-won personal emotional nugget of ore out to the listening world to peruse.

“Scapa Flow 1919”, which Kris talks of above, is the oldest song on the album, and sits in that folk-roots tradition of commemoration of an historical event. There’s detached lyrical wonder at the absurdity of the destruction war wreaks; sprightly percussion, brass and electric guitar spread the tonal power. It’s got a really light touch yet haunts, just nibbling away at your sense of the events concerned. It gives you intellectual space and melodicism for you to reach your own conclusions with a little nuanced guidance.

“Hunker Down That Old Blitz Spirit” has a gorgeous descending figure, a la Bert Jansch, brushed drums, speaks to our collective now. “Wind your neck in and hunker down”: it’s a way most of us built a way through 2020, drawing the curtains and building our own little mechanisms. “There’ll be bluebirds over …” the line hangs cleverly incomplete as a twelve-string riff winds through. The power of the melody and its attack is potent on the final chorus.

“Westlin’ Winds” is sad, there’s no avoiding that. It’s a beautiful lament with power in the rawer end of the British folk canon, Kris is joined in delicate harmonic underpinning by Siobhan Miller for a stocktaking at the end of a summer; pretty much where we are now then. May we all live to see better ones. 

In terms of titular subject, “Hollow Trees” stays out in the elements; the lyrics are again unblinking and frank in their dealing with highly charged subject matter. “There is a last time we’ll hold each other / And if I’m the first to go I hope you’ll take a lover,” Kris tells a intimate. But, Kris outlines, to lose oneself in one’s own reflection, to answer the echo of legend, that way can only lie falsehood. That’s living like hollow trees. All surface, no marrow of being. The middle eight has that baroque lushness of Stormcock; the chorus, an almost pop uplift and optimistic resolution; the following bridge, a deep fiddle-driven rootsiness. It’s complex and it’s a real highlight of the record.

The ninth and final track is “Striking The Colours”: in nautical parlance, the moment of surrender, the lowering of the ensign. “Loaded to the gunwales, I step into the black-eyed dog,” Kris sings with a real lightness of touch, a song that could be a dirge or drear or just hugely black in so many other hands. Instead, the melodic uplift, the playing and Kris’s voice lift the song into acceptance and reflection. 

And this in part is Kris’s strength: he sees all too clearly the world for what it is; he knows how this film ends; but instead of caving into monochrome, he stands defiant and expert in his songcraft, brings catharsis and folk opulence where a lesser hand would have us aground on the sharp fangs of the over-emoted. That’s a cold fate; in Kris’s hands there’s compelling hearthside warmth.

Kris Drever’s Where The World Is Thin will be released by Reveal Records on download and CD formats on October 2nd. You can pre-order a copy from Kris’s Bandcamp page, here.

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