Martin Simpson, ‘Trails & Tribulations’ – a review

The life of a folk musician in 2017 is something of a nomadic ritual. In search of audiences, you spend huge amounts of time traversing A-roads, B-roads, deserted night motorways lit in murky orange and country lanes lit by nothing at all. It’s time spent thinking, working things out, meandering down half forgotten memory lanes, wondering how many times you’ve known this road before or whether it’s a new one that just looks like all the rest of them. Many musicians find inspiration in the journey – others are driven round and round the bend. 

Meeting Martin Simpson in January this year, I got the impression that he sat somewhere in the middle of all these possibilities. On the one hand, he had no clear idea whether he’d previously played the town we were, hinting that memories of places merging was an occupational hazard, and he talked of the frustration of lying awake in motel rooms as elusive lyrics to new songs struggled to fall into place. On the other hand, he spoke eagerly of having time alone in the car to enjoy the experience of simply listening. Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ had been his meditation that morning, and while he still found the piece monolithic, he’d clearly had a wonderful time trying to think his way up and around it.

So it’s little wonder that Trails & Tribulations – the album he releases on September 1st – encapsulates most of this frustration and wonder. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of songs continuously on the move – songs that were written on the move, arranged on the move, honed on the move, tell stories from different continents and transport the listener through multiple eras in the space of a single song.

The collection even sounds better on the move. Over the last month I’ve taken it with me almost everywhere I’ve been, and it has become one of those albums (everybody has them) that wraps its arms around you on a night journey, offering protection, intrigue and adventure as the towns flash by your window. When I was a child, my parents played Brothers in Arms and Graceland on long car journeys and, to this day, I am drawn in by the stories they tell and the aural landscapes they exist in. Trails & Tribulations has that effect.

It helps that it’s not rooted in one place. As Martin told me in our last conversation, he doesn’t see himself specifically as an English folk musician. He’s as likely to play a country blues from the southern States as he is to pull something out of a Cecil Sharp collection. The mastery with which he does both remains bright and undiminished, but there’s also a warmth to the arrangements here, and the songs – wherever they originate from – compliment one another perfectly. Maybe it’s the company he’s keeping in the control room, but the varying sides of Martin Simpson have never sounded so comfortable sat alongside one another.

Of course, it’s never just about the songs that Martin chooses. There are also the songs he writes. Live on stage, he self-deprecates before launching into his “only hit”, ‘Never Any Good’ (Prodigal Son, 2007). He’s going to have to do that a whole lot more with the handful of tracks he’s added to his catalogue here. ‘Maps’ delights with that slow/not-slow phrasing that he has always done so well – following the pulse of his head and heart rather than any strict metronome – while ‘Thomas Drew’ is that wonderful kind of modern folk song: a tale well known, told from the perspective of someone else in the picture. ‘Ridegway’ is the opening paragraph of this review set to song – the thought process of a travelling writer awake to the world around him, following inspiration into history, learning and teaching as he goes.

It is, however, the overwhelming emotion of ‘Jasper’s/ Dancing Shoes’ that really takes the breath away. Opening as a masterclass in measured fingerpicking, a minor chord shifts the sweet and innocent tune into a yearning call for companionship delivered across the ages as the singer gazes at the accumulated minutiae of his mother’s life immediately following her death. The keening, shifting melody is couched in a beautiful, understated arrangement, recorded beautifully by Hudson Records‘ Andy Bell, a man clearly as emotionally invested in the production of this song as the composer himself. And, just as the bittersweet emotion seems almost unbearable, the jaunty opening motif returns, albeit with a fresh layer of melancholy. Simply astounding.

Of the traditional songs and covers on the album, it’s incredibly hard to pick out those that I will go back to again and again, simply because there’s nothing here that wouldn’t warrant anything less than four stars out of five. However, three leap out for immediate comment.

The Jackson C Frank song, ‘Blues Run the Game’, has been in circulation as a single for several months now, but its opening slot on the album still strikes me as a bold statement, given how well-covered it is. It’s almost like Hendrix taking on ‘Wild Thing’: I know you’ve heard this a million times before, but wait until you hear my version… and if that’s the intention, then it pays off. As brilliant as the song is, few guitarists ever get beyond the basic Paul Simon-esque fingerpicked motif. While we’re in no doubt that Simpson loves and adores the original, you can almost see him sitting down with the original simple structure in hand and thinking, ‘what’s the point?’, before launching into a typically exhilarating flurry of light-fingered fancy.

The Emily Portman song, ‘Bones and Feathers’ – a brooding, mystical and ultimately joyous piece – takes on an almost avant garde tone in Simpson’s hands, the driving, erratic banjo riff and random percussion initially impossible to get your head around, entirely wrong-footing the listener before the gentle, descending melody lays itself gently across the ruffled bed. It’s the kind of recording that rewards repeated listens – perhaps difficult initially, but ultimately a standout – and the climax, as his daughter joins him on backing vocals, is as euphoric as Portman’s original. Think of a dark night giving way to a fresh, clear morning and you’ll be somewhere near the same wavelength.

For fans of Martin Simpson as a guitar player, the highlight has to be his take on ‘Reynardine’, notably closing the album. Just like the opening track, it’s a song that everyone has had a crack at, although never quite like this. In our interview last month, he talked of having to close off the thought process and simply allow the fingers to do what they must. There’s no way to record something like this using studio trickery – it has to be done as a complete take, vocals, guitar and all – and in just under five minutes, Martin Simpson demonstrates here why he is rightfully seen as a living legend when it comes to the acoustic six-string. Nobody else has the ability to pull off something quite this technically brilliant. It’s an audacious end to a sublime album.

“I’ve always felt really strongly that you’re actually supposed to get better,” Martin told me during our first interview, “that you’re actually supposed to push it, you know?” Many recording artists hitting their 60s might’ve had a hard time stacking a statement like that up against their recent output. Not so with Martin Simpson. Like Dylan, you get the sense that he’s still very much improving with age, and it’ll be amazing to see how he tops Trails & Tribulations. 

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