Inspired by his experience working with poet Edwin Morgan during the recording of Remote Part in 2002, vocalist Roddy Woomble of Scottish four-piece Idlewild wanted to explore the artistic possibilities of collaborations between the literary talents of Scotland’s writing community with a diverse range of musicians, both new and well-established. With the generous support of the Scottish Arts Council—whose funding recently brought us Weightlifting, a smashing return to form by nearly defunct Kilmarnock popsters the Trashcan Sinatras—and of Glasgow record label Chemikal Underground, the result is the intriguing album Ballads of the Book. The genesis of the project is also to be the subject of a documentary for Scottish television, though it’s not clear whether the film will see broader release.
Writers contributing lyrics include established authors Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray, contemporary talents Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Louise Welsh, and Ian Rankin, poets Robin Robertson, Bill Duncan, and Rody Gorman, as well as successful novelists Michel Faber, Alan Bissett, and Laura Hird. Bands setting those lyrics to music include Woomble’s own Idlewild, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Alasdair Roberts, the Trashcan Sinatras, famed ‘60s folksinger Vashti Bunyan, former Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffatt (as Aidan Moffatt and the Best Ofs), ex-Delgado Alun Woodward (as Lord Cut-Glass), and Emma Pollock (fellow Glaswegian, former Delgado, and Chemikal Underground founder), among many others. In the words of Dundee’s A.L. Kennedy, “it’s like a reverse Hollywood.”
Because Ballads of the Book features songs written by fifteen different lyricists and set to music by eighteen different acts (Edwin Morgan, John Burnside, and Rody Gorman contributed lyrics for two tracks each), I expected it to be all over the map thematically and stylistically. Surprisingly, however, the resulting collection of folk and indie pop is fairly cohesive, and the concept works more often than not. Though many writers contributed verses with particular artists in mind, the lyrics were circulated amongst the musicians as they came in, and were passed around until they found a musical home. Thus “Half an Apple”, Ali Smith’s spare, poignant poem about love lost, was originally written for folk singer Kate Rusby, but eventually fell into the lap of the Trashcan Sinatras, who turned it into a melancholy ballad featuring slide guitar and Frank Reader’s yearning tenor.
Many of the songs touch on weighty issues of aging, domesticity, war, and alcoholism, the latter most notably on the boozy, amusingly titled “A Calvinist Narrowly Avoids Pleasure” (“Give me my whiskey bottle / Give me the moist sliding up / As the cork squeaks out of the neck / Releasing not the soft focus rustic gold of advertisers / But the male blood brotherhood of generations”). Some of the songs sound pretty much like I expected: Norman Blake turns lyrics from John Burnside into “Girl”, a catchy pop song that wouldn’t be out of place on a Teenage Fanclub album, while Vashti Bunyan turns Rodge Glass’s lyrics into a fragile acoustic lament “The Fire”. Others are more surprising, such as former Delgado Woodward, who set lyrics by Alasdair Gray to music, producing the wistful “A Sentimental Song” (“I have traveled a very long way / I have been where no bird has ever flown / I have been and I’ve returned / I’m cradled in your arms / And my sleep is now the deepest I have known”). Best of all, however, is the sprightly pop of Emma Pollock’s “Jesus on the Cross” (“Jesus on the cross / Hanging in the rain / Let me give you an umbrella / To help to ease your pain”), featuring lyrics by Louise Welsh. It’s definitely time to give my old Delgados discs another listen.