Here’s a familiar story: an album, released in 1970, introduces the world to a multitalented, somewhat ethereal musical artist. The world takes little note, and said artist vanishes into the mists of obscurity, unheard of for the next three decades. Then, all of a sudden, a small band of dedicated loyalists instigates a recovery of her legacy, leading to widespread acclaim and critical plaudits.
Vashti Bunyan? Well, yes, but not just her: Mary-Anne Paterson’s non-career followed the same trajectory. While Bunyan has received much more attention, largely on the basis of her being championed by the cultural power brokerage of “freak-folk” guru Devendra Banhart (who even coaxed her out of retirement for the 2005 comeback album, Lookeraftering), the dedicated folks at reissue label Sunbeam have set out to restore Me, Paterson’s lone album, to its proper historical position.
That position is, in fact, somewhat debatable: Me lacks the visionary aspects of Bunyan’s contemporaneous Just Another Diamond Day, and Paterson lacks the songwriting strength as well. Though her voice is similar to Bunyan’s, her arrangements are less fully fleshed-out, with the sparse musical accompaniment (mostly flute and light percussion) played by what Paterson describes in the liner notes as “a group of buskers from the local tube station . . . with barely any rehearsal.”
But if it’s impossible not to measure Me against Diamond Day, it’s also a bit of an artificial juxtaposition; Paterson was less involved in pursuing trippy psychedelia, preferring the less lysergic terrain of traditional folk songs. Taken on its own terms, Me merits attention as a lovely, pristine reflection of the 1960s British folk movement, much less a definitive statement than a worthwhile contribution. It certainly warrants more attention than it’s received, and if Sunbeam manages to catch Bunyan’s tailwind, it’s for the best, as Me deserves to take flight.
Paterson’s self-penned “Love Has Gone” begins the album on a haunting, pastoral note well in keeping with folk standard-bearers like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span. Paterson’s high voice has a certain formal distance to it, but balances this against a warm undercurrent of less detached regret, and the medieval-sounding phrasing leaves one practically expecting a madrigal next. Like “Reverie for Rosyln”, the other Paterson-written song that helps bookend Me with originals, “Love Has Gone” stands out more for its crystalline sound and mood than any particularly notable songwriting, but Paterson’s evocative voice points to her strength as an interpreter, something the nine traditional songs between the originals bear out vividly.
On “Coulter’s Candy”, a Scottish children’s song, Paterson’s lilting, sing-song cadence carries a hypnotic power undermined only by the song’s brief length (under two minutes). “The Gentleman Soldier”, meanwhile, can be played as a salacious jig (see the Pogues’ 1985 version for a raucous run through it), but Paterson finds the sorrowful core of its tale of an English soldier impregnating and abandoning a wartime fling. Anyone curious as to where acid folk earned it moniker might find a clue at the one-minute mark of “Black Girl”, at which point the Appalachian song (better known to American audiences as “In the Pines” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, sung by everyone from Leadbelly to Nirvana) tears open into a spastic flute, thumping bongo drums, and a freewheeling, high-pitched wail from Paterson. It’s a potent injection of raw experimentation into the song, which returns smoothly to its familiar melody a minute later, all the more powerful for having unearthed the explosive sentiments that motivate the song.
For the most part, Paterson avoids such digressions and emphasizes her pleasant, backward-looking style. “Candyman” includes a steady beat and some modernized guitar licks, but for the most part Me dwells in older folk traditions. Its rare excursions into the late twentieth century can be distracting (witness the disconcerting production decision to place the drums on the far right side of the mix midway through the otherwise gorgeous prayer-song “Hallowed Be Thy Name”), but they occur infrequently enough for Paterson to cast a convincingly antediluvian mood.
While Me failed to bestow riches and fame upon Paterson, her helpful liner notes reveal that her interest lay with neither; the album was recorded only in the hopes of raising funds for an arts center for children (she worked as a teacher). It failed on that front — as she writes, “I never earned a penny from it,” and “until the reissue was suggested, no one had ever mentioned it to me since!” This fazed Paterson little, and she went on to a successful and generous career, working with victims of torture and hospital patients.
Even if Me had been an artistic travesty, that benevolence ought to win Paterson points with listeners. But she has no need for such sympathy treatment: the album stands on its own legs, a delicate, wistful reminder of the buried treasures of recorded musical history. Sunbeam has done well to recover it; with any luck, perhaps they can entice Paterson into a “comeback” album of her own.