From—I admit it—disappointment after the first listen and a warming up after the next few listens, I’ve been listening to this album with monotonous frequency, with no sign yet of even beginning to tire of it.
The initial disappointment came from expecting more traditional performances of Robert Burns’s songs, more Woody Guthrie solo or with harmonica than an arrangement for a full band. My fear had been that the soulful simplicity of Burns would be lost beneath the desire to be arty when singing the words of a Real Poet, a fear seemingly confirmed when Eddi Reader showed up with members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in tow.
At his best, Burns is minimal while maintaining his idiosyncrasy, soulful but not weepy, humanistic but no one’s fool. It’s that last quality that makes Burns the ideal folk poet. Besides even the sheer quality of his work, Burns also developed an artistic persona that speaks but knowingly of the human race, especially of the working people, that he himself was a member of. With a few alterations and changes in accent, it’s a persona that Guthrie blazed a trail in adopting as a recording artist, a persona that the young Dylan mimed (via Guthrie) down even to the rugged workshirts. Burns is an idealist and revolutionary, but he’s also not duped by the bloodthirsty Jacobites of the French Revolution, either. More than 150 years before Dylan, Burns’s address to “Ye Jacobites” is a scathing reminder that he could see through their masks. As such, Burns’s persona was not one I thought would mesh with an orchestra.
Despite being collected into poetry anthologies, usually clumped with Blake as the other Early Romantic before Wordsworth and Coleridge, despite my doubts about an orchestra, this album does an excellent job of getting Burns back to where he really belongs. Though academically respectable, he is a great folk poet and songwriter in the best tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. And, like Guthrie (but unlike, for the most part, Dylan), Burns has a genius for telling simplicity.
In “Ae Fond Kiss”, Burns writes to a woman (one of the many) that he fell in love with. The poem itself was written upon that woman’s leaving to go back to her husband. The poem itself makes no allusion to the specifics of the story (though it does use the woman’s real name, Nancy, once). Instead, from Burns’s pen, the song becomes the sort of universal bittersweet parting anthem that songwriters have been trying to write since before the first Bic lighter was held up during “Freebird”. Despite the sadness of the farewell itself, Burns has no bitterness for his “first and fairest” for, after all, “nothing could resist my Nancy”.
Everyone’s felt this way, but that’s the point, that everyone’s felt this way but only a few have been able to articulate so well the lingering affection that softens (complements?) the sadness of parting prematurely from a crush. There’s sadness, sure, but also too much affection to make any regret fully sincere.
Reader singing the song adds her own half-sighed, half-whispered “Bye bye, baby” to the end of the song, a simple addition on paper, but perfectly suited to the song. It’s also a spontaneous (or seemingly spontaneous, who cares which?) gesture that undercut my own uncertainties that the music was too classical for my taste or the mood of the music. Besides, having a full band allows the musicians to later proudly mimic a brothel band in “Charlie Is My Darling”. When they actually do go for the sort of echoing chamber music I first feared they would, it’s for less than two minutes and, considering “John Anderson My Jo” is about old age and dying, it’s actually pretty appropriate.
And, of course, the album ends with “Auld Lang Syne”, an eternal classic so good that—and this is personal experience—it sounds good even when being sung by drunks on New Year’s Eve. So good that even slowing it down and having violins linger in the background doesn’t dampen the spirit, merely emphasizing the pensiveness of the lyric, making it a perfect song for old, sober friends over tea. If they ever unearth an old tape of Guthrie (with Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry accompanying, hopefully) singing Robert Burns tunes, I’ll be racing to buy it upon release. But, even then, I’ll still be hanging on to this, Reader’s unexpected (for me, at least), compelling interpretations of those same songs.