Seth Lakeman is for some the poster boy of the English folk scene, born in the heart of Dartmoor in a region soaked in history, heritage and stories, he now has an impressive trio of albums under his belt. From the battlefields of Freedom Fields and the oceans of Poor Man’s Heaven emerges the honest open-hearted politics of Hearts and Minds. For this album, Lakeman has enlisted the talents of prolific producer and recording engineer Tchad Blake who has worked with artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega (on the brilliant 99.9F), Crowded House (the acclaimed Woodface) and Cheech & Chong (yes, really). On his working relationship with Blake, Lakeman described it as ‘a good learning experience’ and working together ‘has moved things forward’. The result is, even in the heavier moments, a softer collection of songs - the predictable violin always present accompanying Lakeman’s trademark earthy rasp.
A perfect example of the new ‘melody’ driven approach is the brilliant Stepping Over You, with quiet subtle verses exploding into vibrant flowing choruses. The song starts with simple banjo and vocal before filling in after a minute. Easily one of the best songs Lakeman has delivered, perfectly judged and controlled. This is a chance to muse on spirituality: ‘the secret scars that we all bear, as saints or sinners rising up from the earth into the air…’. This is reinforced with the final words: ‘learn a lesson if you can, a great belief is, in the hearts of every man’. But this is not just empty headed controversial liberalism, this is a message for a changing time echoing (somewhat fortuitously) the recent shifting political landscape in the United Kingdom. Spinning Days is also an early moment of seriousness. Not that Lakeman isn’t serious, but this is a very obvious fusion of control and melody designed to get even the most hardened gig goer reaching for the nearest lighter.
Hearts and Minds hits hardest when a more direct message is required. Opening with the title track and getting the more obvious rhetoric out of the way quickly, Lakeman seeks to separate the ‘suited men from the public schools’, attacking bailiffs and standing up for farmers, to remind us that there are ‘people in constant need’. This is in massive contrast to the less militant messages conveyed by most of the album. And the instrumental finale would make The Levellers rethink their entire approach to music. Superb. Likewise The Watchman is a metaphor for surveillance culture, ensuring travellers ‘a safe journey’ but really watching their every move. The middle ground is reached with See Them Dance. Instead of just adding a violin track, Lakeman works the song around it, creating a core thread for everything else to hang onto. More brilliant song writing.
Sometimes in a quest for something more mainstream Hearts and Minds veers slightly off track. Tiny World is bouncy folk-pop with a horribly trite chorus and a very thick string arrangement. This translates into an even thicker vocal collision later on. A bit like organised chaos, albeit annoyingly engaging and charming. Tender Traveller tells the story of a man on the run and ultimately accepting ones fate but the message is stretched thin. In the same way Hard Working Man stays just the right side of patronisation but the idea is stifled by an inane delivery.
Elsewhere there are a few surprises. No song deviates from what you would expect but some get close. The stabbing Signed and Sealed quickly moves from the more traditional to weave in eastern rhythms as the story is told, that of a man doomed to die in pursuit of wealth (’his mortal life caught and bound with one final debt to pay’). Immediately preceding this, Changes is delicate and poised, oozing just a bit too much radio-friendly charm. To finish, The Circle Grows is beautifully executed and after a wayward second half this gives Hearts and Minds some much needed stability.
Seth Lakeman has approached his fifth album with a wide-eyed optimism combined with deep rooted realism of the modern world. Much of the themes here involve injustice and prejudice, both modern and historical. It doesn’t always hit the mark and sometimes the message is confused and conflicted but that is the nature of tackling the big issues. Instead of steering away, Tchad Blake has pushed Lakeman further into those things his critics want him to leave behind with startling results. As a song writer Lakeman adds relevance by championing the common man rather than resorting to obvious and empty handed rabble-rousing. The core of folk music is story telling and Seth Lakeman is not only getting better musically but also narratively. Great musicians are great story tellers and this makes Hearts and Minds a progression and a triumph.
-- CS (for In One Ear)