Over the past 60 years, Judy Collins‘ voice has gained legendary status, mainly through her interpretative skills. She was encouraged to write her own songs as far back as the 1960s, and, although she found success doing so, that side of her art never took priority. With the pandemic creating space, Collins sat down daily to write, sometimes wholly new material and sometimes drawing from her abundance of recent poetry. In her early 80s and for her 29th album, Collins releases her first record of solely original material, Spellbound. As she looks back through her life and relocations, Collins finds her writing, singing, and playing to be as strong as ever, making this new release a particular sort of treat.
Much of the album carries a nostalgic tone. Collins looks back on lost loves and youthful experiences, but she traces her thought to the present, developing recent museum visits and reflective readings. It opens with the title track and its surprising opening line: “Windy day in Honolulu”. As expansive as her career has been, Collins has rarely – if ever – been associated with Hawaii. We last heard her on Winter Stories, sharing snowy bluegrass music while working with a Norwegian artist (Jonas Fjeld). She’s not lost on the beach, though (and there’s no sudden tropical influence), as she uses her setting to reflect on the past and her changes in perspective over the years, even as she’s generally remained “spellbound”. The lush and bright arrangement works well, and Ari Hest’s backing vocals develop the richness of the track.
On both “So Alive” and “City of Awakening”, Collins inhabits a much more likely setting, Greenwich Village. The former begins as look back at halcyon days, singing in notable spots, falling in love, experiencing the largeness of youth. The track turns with the death of a partner, and ideas about being “so alive” take on a more literal and heartstruck feel. Collins mixes the joy of those days with the grief that wove through them, as well. Her single-line chorus remains uplifting, maybe increasingly so, among the darker feelings, a wonderful bit of relief. “City of Awakening” serves more like a paean to New York, her piano runs saying as much as her vocals.
Other tracks take in the American West, whether her profound love of Colorado or her battle with tuberculosis in Arizona. Collins has been everywhere and done everything, and Spellbound gives her the chance to synthesize these experiences under the guidance of decades of reflection for a sort of self-portrait. Even when she’s not traveling, she takes us places. “Thomas Merton” honors the monk’s life and peace-focused ideas, but it suggests the oddities surrounding his death. Collins doesn’t get mired in the lingering questions about his end, but she uses it to connect to a broader question: “Why are people so afraid / Of those who work for peace?” We don’t have to go with Merton to Thailand to feel the urgency and persistence of that question.
On “Arizona”, the album’s proper final piece (a new version of “The Blizzard” comes as a bonus), Collins sings, “You must fly from the winter to May / You must fly from the past into today.” The couplet reflects Collins’ art on Spellbound. Born in part out of pandemic isolation, it nevertheless finds a lightness. Written in part from the pull of memory, it nevertheless finds its meaning in the present. Collins has been writing and performing great songs for over 50 years. In that sense, there’s nothing unexpected in the idea that she would release such a strong album right now. In another way, though, it’s just further evidence that magic always surprises.