Damn it, Nick Hart. Here’s me thinking I’ve heard the best albums of the year already, and then you sneak into my inbox and threaten to blow the competition away. Give us fair warning next time, would you? Spread your name far and wide – people will listen! – and approach your musical career with less humility. You have been told.
Now, I don’t know Nick Hart personally, but everything about the arrival of Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs smacks of a ridiculous lack of self-confidence – ridiculous because this is an album that should not be hidden away and smothered in modesty. I first heard about its release after the artist sent me an email hinting that he might’ve done something that I might want to hear, but then again, if I didn’t want to hear it, then that would be fine, too.
“I released it in January”, he told me.
“Why am I only hearing it now?” I wondered.
“Laziness”, came the hesitant reply.
If it is laziness, that’s a shame, and – Mr Hart, if you’re reading – it really is time to snap out of it. However, I suspect it’s a mixture of other things – some form of bashfulness being quite common among a number of traditional singers self-releasing albums at the moment. (As an example, when I interviewed Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp recently – look out for that chat coming to these pages soon – they told me they were surprised that anyone might want to hear The Poacher’s Fate). Indeed, if you try to find any info about Nick Hart on the internet, it won’t be easy. There’s no website. Youtube videos are few and far between. People mention him in passing. It occurred to me that it may be part of some extravagant marketing plan – an attempt to come across as windswept and mysterious – but it would make for quite a bizarre approach to a debut solo album if that were the case.
That said, the album does have the hallmarks of being a cult classic in waiting. Once you’ve found your way beyond the jovial, slightly misleading cover photo (a grinning Hart clutching an outstretched bunch of flowers), you’re into something that feels cosy and familiar in its insularity. It’s the kind of album I can recall listening to intently back in my student days – earphones on, eyes shut, drinking in every last drop of sound and wondering how and where it came from. Its understated nature almost demands that its loveliness should only be realised years later, although I – for one – am going to shout about it long and loudly enough to try and ensure that doesn’t happen.
As you might expect, given what I’ve told you so far, there’s absolutely nothing flashy about Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs (how can there be with a title like that?) but the gentle, uncomplicated fingerpicking and the world-weariness of the man’s voice suit each other wonderfully. When he sings about the collapse of his wellbeing after years in “flash company”, you completely believe him (‘The Yellow Handkerchief’). Similarly, when he sings the story of displaced lives along Paradise Road in the mid 1800s (‘The River Don’t Run’ – arguably the most beautiful folk song you’ll hear this year, and a surefire contender for a Folk Award if there’s any justice left at all in this world), you get the sense that he may be channeling some previous life. It matters not a jot that the song happens to be a recent folk song rather than a traditional. It sounds as if it marched right out of the tradition in the back pocket of the man who lived it – none other than Nick Hart himself.
While that world-weariness hangs elegantly across much of the album, it is by no means entirely melancholy. Throughout the set, Hart imparts riches from the tradition as if he was this timeworn, many-storied chap huddled in the corner of the pub, happy to burst forth when called upon. ‘Twenty-One Years On Dartmoor’ is the sorry tale of a sentencing, offered with the kind of music-hall delivery you might imagine gripped public houses across the country in the late Victorian era. ‘Butter & Cheese’ is a fine old bit of slap and tickle; an old song, often associated with Sam Larner, that finds a fornicating fancy-man scampering up a chimney to hide from his lover’s husband, only to be discovered when the butter and cheese in his pockets start melting and scattering fuel on the fire below. You get the impression that if you were out collecting folk songs in the company of Cecil Sharp and his cronies, the chap the locals might point you in the direction of would sound quite a lot like Nick Hart.
As with the aforementioned Poacher’s Fate, Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs is an album that benefits from the stripped-back aesthetic that seems to be gaining popularity on the traditional folk scene at the moment (see the Spotify playlist below). At the very most, the songs are adorned with guitar and fiddle, rarely anything more, and while that may seem lacking to anyone interested in more complex arrangements, it does mean that both the performer and the songs are required to do all the heavy lifting without the benefit of a studio safety net. As you may have guessed, Nick Hart does all of this with quiet aplomb.