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


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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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