Music

James Yorkston Takes a New Road on 'The Route to the Harmonium'

Photo: Ren Rox / Domino Records

Esteemed Scottish folk singer-songwriter James Yorkston heads into midlife with The Route to the Harmonium, and no has affection for what he sees.

The Road to the Harmonium
James Yorkston

Domino

22 February 2019

Like the movies of Wes Anderson, James Yorkston's albums exist in a well-established, insular, immediately-recognizable world that is subject more to subtle variation than drastic reinvention. Just as one would not expect Anderson to all-of-a-sudden pull a coarse, grimy sci-fi epic out of his sleeve, it would be silly to expect Yorkston to move from his airy, quiet Scottish folk to, say, dubstep techno. Therefore, when an album like The Route to the Harmonium comes along, Yorkston's seventh or so in an 18-year career, it would be easy simply to mark it as "another James Yorkston album" and leave it to his dedicated fans to suss out the subtleties.

The Route to the Harmonium, though, is something a bit more than another in a line of Yorkston albums. It is also, unfortunately, something a bit less. Why is it that so many artists become less enjoyable just as they become more impressive?

Yorkston's music has, over the years, become gradually more open to the progressive and experimental. While his primary instruments have remained his acoustic guitar and assured yet calming voice, he has added wrinkles and flourishes. He has, at different times, turned over production to members of Cocteau Twins, Four Tet, and Hot Chip, none of whom will ever be pigeonholed as folk bands. Most significantly to The Route to the Harmonium, though, are Yorkston's two albums with double-bassist Jon Thorne and Indian sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan. Though still based in Yorkston's traditional sound, they also incorporated elements of freeform jazz and Eastern drone music, and they were recorded between Yorkston's The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society (2014) and The Route to the Harmonium.

The latter has clearly been affected by these collaborations, most notably in the form of Tom Arthurs' trumpet, which wafts in and out of songs, free jazz style, much as Khan's sarangi did. Also, though Yorkston recorded most of The Route to the Harmonium alone, it is denser than any of his other work to date, with esoteric instruments like the nyckelharpa, Dulcitone, and something called a Bookorder often pressing in against the acoustic guitar. Yorkston's music has always been atmospheric and allowed for ambient room sounds and tape hiss. But it has rarely been as oppressive and at times downright dissonant as it is on the likes of "My Mouth Ain't No Bible" and "Yorkston Athletic", both spoken-word pieces with tempestuous, pounding rhythms. Even the more familiar slate of ballads have an uneasy sort of closeness to them.

If the music is at times uncomfortable, Yorkston's lyrics leave no quarter. As sincere and carefully-crafted as ever, they are almost shockingly bleak. The narrator of "My Mouth Ain't No Bible" puts it well: "My mind just cracked, but unlike [Leonard] Cohen, no light got in, just dark." When Yorkston's characters reflect, it is with nihilism rather than wisdom or fondness. His lovers are failed lovers, as in "Brittle" and "Solitary Islands All". "I did my best / But I was not trained for this," one says on "The Villages I Have Known My Entire Life". Yorkston can still turn a phrase, but the coy, winking cynicism has been replaced with stone-faced resignation. Beneath the inherent prettiness of his music lurks the inherent ugliness of humanity. "Maybe this is why life speeds up--," he says at one point, "We're eager to see off the shame."

Is Yorkston undergoing a Tom Waits-style mid-life, mid-career evolution, allowing an implied heaviness to give way to an overt density? Quite possibly. Waits' best work never left the playfulness completely behind. No doubt, The Route to the Harmonium is an impressive artistic statement. Too often, and especially when compared with Yorkston's previous work, it is something less than enjoyable.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Texas Gentlemen Share the Powerful and Soulful "Last Call" (premiere)

Eclectic Texas band, the Texas Gentlemen return with a vibrant, imaginative LP that resists musical boundaries. Hear their latest epic single, "Last Call".

Music

Vincent Cross Pays Tribute to Folk Hero via "King Corcoran" (premiere)

Gangs of New York-era James "The Rooster" Corcoran was described as the terror of New York's east side. His descendent, Vincent Cross, retells his story with a "modern dark fairy tale".

Music

Eddy Lee Ryder Gets Lonely and Defiant with "Expected to Fly" (premiere)

Eddy Lee Ryder explores the loss of friendship and refusal to come of age, cloaked in the deeply dramatic and powerful song, "Expected to Fly".

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Film

Creative Disruption in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire yearns to burn tyrannical gendered tradition to ash and remake it into something collaborative and egalitarian.

Music

Fave Five: The Naked and Famous

Following two members leaving the group in 2018, synthpop mavens the Naked and Famous are down to a duo for the first time ever and discuss the records they turned to help make their aptly-named fourth record, Recover.

Evan Sawdey
Books

Fleetwood Dissects the European Mindset in His Moody, Disturbing Thriller, 'A Young Fair God'

Hugh Fleetwood's difficult though absorbing A Young Fair God offers readers a look into the age-old world views that have established and perpetuated cultural rank and the social attitudes that continue to divide us wherever we may reside in the world.

Music

Art Feynman Creates Refreshing Worldbeat Pop on 'Half Price at 3:30'

On Half Price at 3:30, Art Feynman again proves himself adept at building colorful worlds from unexpected and well-placed aural flourishes.

Music

The Beths Are Sharp As Ever on 'Jump Rope Gazers'

New Zealand power-poppers the Beths return with a sophomore album that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.

Music

Jessie Ware Returns to Form on 'What's Your Pleasure'

On What's Your Pleasure, Jessie Ware returns to where it all began, the dance floor.

Music

The Jayhawks Offer Us Some 'XOXO'

The Jayhawks offer 12-plus songs on XOXO to help listeners who may be alone and scared by reminding us that we are all alone together.

Music

Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross

Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.