There’s little accident in Martin Callingham’s choosing to close his debut album, Tonight, We All Swim Free, with a song named “Tides Return”. If “Tides” is not identical to opener “Rhosgoch”, as the former relies much more on vocal harmonies than the latter, which concerns itself with the interplay between strings, the journey between them has been so even and staid and the similarities between this last and this first song are such that even an astute listener is likely to ask, “Isn’t this where we came in?” There’s a central quality of sameness that characterizes the twenty-eight minutes of this folk album and lends it a quality not entirely unlike a lapping lake going through its day.
In part this seems the product of design. There’s an abundance of watery imagery in the lyrics — a door in “Hare on the Hill” both “anchors eyes” and “trace(s) a line/through rough waters” while the inhabitants of “a saltwater town” dream of “swimming free” in “Build Us A Path”; the subject of “Portland Square” is prone to letting her thoughts linger on images of the coast – while the strings of the guitar and the fiddle do their best never to rise to above a kind of placid and gentle roll. While a momentum does build throughout “Knots”, this rapid tempo is an exception and one that seems to know it. No sooner has it reached its greatest speed than it abruptly halts (it’s as if it was caught in the middle of an act and, feeling guilty, decided to stop immediately) and the song fades out to make way for the nautical sway of “Folding”.
It’s frustrating, this disclaimer that there’s no danger of these waters ever turning choppy, and just as frustrating that Callingham would tantalize with moments so much stronger than anything else on the album. Only two songs after “Knots” he’s willing to tantalize again before recanting and removing all further suggestions of the dangerous from his music. For four beautiful minutes “Portland Square” eschews the gentle timbre of earlier and later songs in favor of a menacing, minor-key tenor with spare arrangements and shady vocal casts that instill a much needed air of the suggestive and the uncertain. Nothing explicit is ever said, repetition of the phrase “wake up…” and plentiful references to a rising sun can only tease that there is something dangerous afoot and that the addressee of the song had best get a move on, but it’s in these vagaries that the music finds its power. More didactic lyrics would leave too little to the imagination and no room for Callingham’s wispy vocals and occult strings to work their magic.
This kind of impressionistic songwriting is less successful when used to back up Callingham’s preferred style of easy-listening folk. There’s no reason that “Hare on the Hill” should be saddled with such portentous lyrics when it’s so pleasant and easy-going a song. Obscure allusions to King Beauregard and a stack of clutter which “hides no more truth than mine” might sound poetic on paper but are so portentous that when coupled with the lackadaisical loop of the instrumentation and slack sounds they make this lullaby venomous. It’s hard to tell what, exactly, is going on in “Gliding” where the music lacks any kind of urgency and yet the singer is talking of people eager to “slip the call” who are saddled with the knowledge that they can only do so for “so long.” Few phrases sound more ominous than “slip the call” — it does such an excellent job of evoking the noose, a rebellion against compelling conventions and, finally, a failure punishable by execution — but nothing in the score suggests that Callingham is aware that his lyrics might bear such fatal associations. He commits a similar sin in “Folding”, evoking images of martial occupation and industry run amok while he lets the music rolls along like a gentle brook. These interruptions are not jarring in the way the ending of “Knots” and the entirety of “Portland Square” are; they’re too subtle to upset the glassy surface of this music. These lyrics are pollutants rather than interruptions, pond scum one notices only when one stops and peers a little harder beneath the pristine surface Callingham’s work. Except where the lyrics and strings that were laden with water imagery seemed deliberately inserted these exceptions feel invasive, as though they came in without Callingham’s ever noticing them.
More consciously, chosen these tensions might lend a much needed verve to Callingham’s strumming. Instead they succeed only in upsetting the too-delicate tranquility and calling into question exactly how in control of his own abilities Callingham really is. They do not betray him as incompetent, only as conflicted, but in doing so they ruin the peace he wants so much to convey with this work. His conservatism (one of the great sins of folk musicians the world over) ends up betraying him as someone wholly obsessed with the genre he works in and slightly afraid of what’s bubbling just beneath his own placid surface. He seems terrified of diving into those deeps just as he’s afraid of letting his listeners peer too far into them, which gives the lie to the title of the album. Callingham may yearn to swim free – to go as far out and as far down as possible – but the risks he’d have to take must seem too much. So instead he plays it safe and in doing so delivers perfectly safe, perfectly acceptable and perfectly bland music.