[4 February 2009]
When the Haar Rolls In, the latest by Scotland’s James Yorkston, documents the fragility of the human condition. It contains fear, despair, loss and regret. Any hint of redemption comes offered with the knowledge everything could fall apart anyway. Though melodic, the music sets up for crying jags or post-funeral gatherings. And it’s also one of the most consistently compelling and beautiful records to be released in quite a while.
Generally speaking, this is a folk record. But Yorkston approaches folk the way artists such as Colin Meloy and Devendra Banhart do: He keeps one eye on the melody and the other on arrangement and production. These elements, combined with the poetry of the lyrics, work together with such symmetry it could easily be taken for granted. The expertise is presented as off-handed; therefore, it’s a bit surprising to discover how immediately the songs stick in the listener’s head. This isn’t Britney Spears but, in a different universe, it could well be.
“B’s Jig” opens the record with the rather sad omission, “If you ever find yourself a wondering / Then please my love show up / You have my word your name is on every guest list”. Harp, banjo and double bass are added to the traditional guitar and piano instrumentation, but the sustainment of the vibraphone truly gives this song its relative punch, played behind the lines, “You were the first, child / You were it all, child”. Touches like this adorn the record. A plethora of instruments being used is commonplace, maybe even just plain common at this point. But used well is a different point altogether, and Yorkston and his band prove both precise and feeling. When the Hammond comes in two-thirds of the way through the title track (‘Haar’, by the way, is fog), and it sounds like screaming, one knows the arrangement is set to warn of times turning tough—and they do. The narrator gets through it with music and drink, pleading for quiet as, yes, the myriad instruments drop out to provide the proper background, leaving a sparse few to do the job.
The lyrics can also be picked apart for their beauty and determination to present the messiness of human relationships. When the Haar Rolls In doesn’t classify as a love dedication, nor a breakup record, but as something somewhere in-between. “Summer’s Not the Same Without You” shows the underlying fear that always accompanies love:
Summer isn’t the same without you
I miss your cunning claws as you bat me away
I teased you into striking
My face red raw but smiling
And the key to it all
Is the love that we seek
But love it can fray
It can come awry
Elsewhere, striking lines abound: “I sleep with your songs running up my arms / And curling around and keeping me warm” from “Tortoise Regrets Hare”. “I carry your memory like a bag full of feathers / Once stuck in the back of my throat / But now a warming dream finally” from “When the Haar Rolls In”. James Yorkston may be able to write melodies that will appeal to the kids who are wondering which phone they should buy next, but his lyrics are for those who have cruelly crushed a heart and live with regret or are contemplating an online-dating service to combat loneliness.
This is a record to notice. James Yorkston has created art of high caliber with When the Haar Rolls In. With strong pop melodies, the words of a poet and the heart of a man with many flaws, this release can be recommended to almost anyone. In these days, with a metaphorical fog settling across the whole world, right now might be a good time to take a moment to notice, in Yorkston’s words, “That’s when the music, I swear, gets me through / I close my eyes and everything is OK”.