Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart has crafted a truly beautiful work of art for her latest solo release Traces. It’s a venture of a unique voice that only Polwart can master. She simultaneously tells a story, provides true human insight, and produces a theatrical sound both grandiose and personal.
Polwart walks a fine line in her political commentary. Rather than outright criticize or sing out her anger in protest, the talented writer uses her maternal experiences and asserts them into a perspective that oft goes unheeded. When she sings of soldiers in “Don’t Worry”, she provides the harsh realities of a strained relationship and a strained mentality. She advises: “When the soldier comes back/ with the weight of the world in his little knapsack/ he’s gonna need a hand to hold/ to ease out the thorns from the heart of his soul/ and roll away the stone.” The horrors of war will never leave a person. It is purposefully written with a vague sense of storytelling that could be a soldier telling his loved one not to worry because it won’t pay the bills, while another tells the loved one to simply be there upon the soldier’s return. Or it could be the narrator’s advice to the loved one. The song “Tinsel Show” shows us the effects of industry and at first glance may seem to be a criticism of industrialism and commercialism with phrases like “And the eyes of ages watch our tinsel show/ While hireling wages steal our dreams from our souls.” But in this industry, there’s a beauty, there’s a multitude of color in its disarray and discord. You can feel the beauty and wonder of science and development coupled with existing structures when Polwart sings in blissful childlike innocence: “Minarets of industry/ spinnerets of alchemy/ belfry towers for bells to ring in/ columnades of chemistry/ and calvacades of conjury/ choir stalls for hearts to sing in.”
In a literary sense, Polwart crafts carefully a word lover’s paradise. Her use of allusions, imagery, and clever diction provides a never-ending source of love from us word nerds. With vivid imagery in "cover Your Eyes", Polwart crafts a portrait of the Balmedie Dunes, recently destroyed by Donald Trump in creating a new golf course (because the world needs more of them). One of my favorite parts of the entire album is the powerful phrase “There’s a blood red mark upon my door” in “Strange News”, a song about her cousin who had died young. It’s a brilliant and effective use of the allusion to the biblical nightmare of children sentenced to death. “Tears for Lots Wife” is based off Anna Akhmatova’s poem and grieves Lot’s wife, the one who looked back at the city of Sodom as the angels demolished it and its sinful inhabitants. She mourned the deaths, and for that, she was turned to a pillar of salt by the angels. It is her who should be mourned, rather than scorned for her sympathy and worry. “Whose gonna mourn/ one woman in a storm?” Her usage of alliteration and consonance is stunningly crafty, as seen in the aforementioned lyrics to “Tinsel Show”. Her use of symbols like the blood red mark upon the door and the wren cut deep in the imagery showcasing Polwart’s ability to capture a mood or a feeling. She truly is showing and not telling. Polwart even relates in “We’re All Leaving” from Charles Darwin’s loss of his child to her own fears as a mother.
The album plays out much like a track from a soundtrack or score to a selection of movies. “Cover Your Eyes” produces a sound that mocks the tide’s ebb and flow with its lulls and its swells and the sea spray. I could imagine this song sung by a choir with a full force to create a truly haunting experience. This song sets the standard for the rest of the album, which does not disappoint in the theatric department. The following tune “King of Birds” does much the same in that the keyboard and percussion in unison favor the combination of a wren’s flight and voice. And the horn’s call at the end sounds a symbol of hope to bring the song’s theme full circle. One of the things that Polwart does well is showcase important phrases in a tune with clever diction, tone, and shift of key or style. “Half a Mile” recounts the murder of an eleven-year-old girl who was walking home from school for the first time on her own. Susan Maxwell lives on through this song and in a powerful sense of lyrical beauty, mesmerizing drumming, differing styles of music, crescendos and decrescendos, and layers of Polwartian voices.
The result of this venture is a portrait of Scotland, complete with the memories, sadness, hopes, and worries of a human, a mother, a neighbor, and a family member. Polwart brings forth a voice that transcends genre with a complex creation that will be hard to outdo the next go round. And the only one to top it is Polwart herself. She’s made some footsteps to fill. Good luck everyone else everywhere that ever sings and writes songs.