Here's a band that I expected to be long defunct, but seem to have stayed in business pretty well since they were founded at St. Mary's Teacher Training College in London way back in 1964. They split up for a few years from 1980 to 1983, but otherwise have continued on and released new material too. This is their twenty-fifth studio album, I believe, if we count one by Sandy Denny and the Strawbs and one by the Acoustic Strawbs. Perhaps more notably, it's their fourth in the past ten years.
Dave Cousins is the only founder member remaining, as everyone else who was in the band that year has either deceased or, in the case of Arthur Phillips, was only in the band very briefly. However, three other musicians here—Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez—joined the Strawbs back in the seventies and have put thirty years or more into the band. Only new fish keyboardist Dave Bainbridge is a recent addition, dating back to 2015.
I think of the Strawbs as a progressive folk band, as you might expect given that luminaries like Sandy Denny, Don Airey and Rick Wakeman have been members over the years. In fact, both of Wakeman's sons have served stints on keyboards. However, this sounds wildly different to what I remember from albums like From the Witchwood, which admittedly came out in the year I was born and I've officially been old since March. Well OK, the instrumental Chorale isn't too far adrift, but the rest of the album is.
Most obviously, while this retains a folk vibe, it's a much darker folk vibe, Cousins's voice reminding of Johnny Cash in his latter years, thoroughly lived in and partially broken, albeit a little softer and less iconic. Then again, I'm old, as I mentioned, but Cousins is older than my mother. I have no doubt that she would sound more thana little broken if she attempted to sing a folk album. Settlement runs just a few minutes shy of an hour and many of the dozen songs on offer all have a darkness to them, even when it's not Cousins singing.
Now, it's not an evil darkness, more a melancholy darkness, born of a lifetime of experiences, not just the pandemic that raged while they wrote and recorded. It's the tone on the title track that opens the album and it's the tone for much of the album. It's less obvious on Judgement Day, while Flying Free escapes it, being a brighter instrumental interlude, but only Better Days (Life is Not a Game) is perky and irreverently upbeat, with an eager calypso vibe and a strong use of brass. How it stays perky with lyrics like "we've all seen better days", I don't know, but the darker song titles are ironically the least dark tonally. Judgement Day ought to be more negative than Settlement, going by titles alone, but it isn't.
The style does vary, even within the darker songs. Quicksilver Days feels like a country song packed in tight with reminiscences and regrets. Thats not too surprising, given that the Strawbs started out as a bluegrass band and Cousins plays dulcimer and banjo as well as guitar. We are Everyone feels like the dark side of the hippie era. The Visit stays truer to folk music, adding a Celtic air but playing a lot slower than we might expect and with a refrain of "Stay away from the window, lock up your doors." I don't think it tells a pandemic story, but the claustrophobia of the pandemic flavours it.
I'm not sure quite what to make of this. It's not a bad album and it is a little haunting, but it's a little much at the end of the day. After all, we went through the pandemic too and I lost too many friends to it. I can understand and forgive the darkness, but it feels a little guilty about it. With the exception of maybe Quicksilver Days, which is heartbreaking, all this material feels like it should be stripped down to its barest essence to tweak our emotional strings as a singer/songwriter album. It doesn't work as well for me as a disjointed band effort.