So this “aggressive secularist” (I write this after the weekend the pope popped in for a visit) is much taken by a CD whose opening words are ‘Serve God“. It’s not unusual; I can live with the contraries. (And not long after said praise-singing, a classic mis-heard lyric: first time round I thought I heard Mumford & Sons sing “But man is a guinea pig” as opposed to Man actually being “a giddy thing” – sorry Mumfords). Meanwhile, in ‘Heartstone‘ (Mantle, 2010) Matthew Shardlake, C.J.Sansom‘s hunchback lawyer and reluctant Tudor private eye, is shaking his head: “Faith is beyond me now.” Indeed, ‘Sigh no more‘ could easily be the soundtrack for ‘Heartstone‘; there’s a lot of people very sorry by the end (“I’m sorry” being the domiant line of said title track).
‘Heartstone‘ splendidly continues Christopher Sansom‘s magnificent sequence of historical crime novels. No wasted words, he just, seemingly effortlessly, takes you there, draws you in at a pace and gives you a space for contemplation that never diverts. Nor are contemporary nudges and winks ever far from the surface, though they are never rammed down your throat. This time around Henry VIII is even fatter but he’s only there as a background figure, though his warmongering sets the alarming atmosphere in which Shardlake and his assistant Barak undertake a series of journeys pursuing two ultimately related mysteries. Like all really good double acts the balance of power in their relationship is shifting, as fatherhood looms for Barak (p.424):
“He folded his arms and looked at me, holding my eye in a way that reminded me oddly of some judges I had known.”
There’s excitement all along, not least in the climax of the sinking of The Mary Rose (not exactly a spoiler – we all know it sank) and I have to say I never saw the big twist coming at all. Shardlake is a good man who can never let things go, and he suffers for it (p.413):
Again I had set out on an enquiry in good faith, with the aim of helping someone in trouble, and bought more trouble to everyone involved.
And that bastard Ritchie Rich is still around (p.547):
“Ah, yes, we councillors are wicked men. But you, I think, like above all to feel you are in the right. Helping the poor and the weak. Justified […] Those with conscience are too obsessed with the rightness of their cause to survive in the end.”
But he does. ‘Sigh no more‘, the superb collection of songs and performances by Mumford & Sons is all about conscience and consequences, contrition and courage, the getting of spiritual and personal enlightenment and survival. It’s a tremendous piece of work that has taken me – as often as not listening to well dead people these days – completely by surprise.
Despite the banjo and dobro – for all their importance in the sheer excitement of the arrangements – this is an English folk record. The songs are not so much timeless as operating in an undefined time and place once upon a time in an England that is usually rural though the town’s not far away; there are harvests and plagues. The title track apparently references Shakespeare, but who knows what they’re so sorry about? Still, you can’t argue with ‘the beauty of love as it was made to be’.
It is not insignificant that shelves of books feature in one of the photos in the CD booklet. This is an intelligent band and there is learning here; hardly a word is employed that wasn’t in a dictionary by the end of the 1800s. There are long words (alignment, oppression, dependence) and a lot more big ones (soul, freedom, love) and meaning can sometimes fail to cohere, to be, to be kind, somewhat obscure (“You cannibal”?). Sometimes it works as mystery but in the end it doesn’t matter – the power, the tides of passion and emotion, the dynamics of the arrangements and vocal harmonies, sweep me away. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of musical reference points – acoustic Zep, Waterboys & Watersons, Decemberists, Bellowhead, many more – but it’s the most original album I’ve enjoyed in a long time. It’s going to be a hell of a difficult second album for these newly impassioned souls. And I fear – repetitive strain injury – for the guitarist’s fierce right arm.
Crossword clue that made us laugh out loud, courtesy of Orlando in the Guardian last week: “Cockney legends, as it were, treated to ample feast (6,2,4). “ Consider that word, legend.