Karine Polwart, Cadogan Hall, London — time, space and alchemy

David Honigmann Oct 18 2018

The Scottish singer sang tales of migration and escape

Karine Polwart flexes time and space. Her songs stretch out to centuries, or shrink to a tiny moment; they switch continents in the space of a couplet, or limn a tiny island or a single cathedral. Human tales of migration and escape mingle with robins, crows and wrens.

This was the opening night in a tour with her new album, Laws of Motion, joined by her brother Steven on guitar and by her neighbour Inge Thomson on accordion and percussion. The opening song saw the rock of the Isle of Lewis rebuking, with abrupt staccato guitar, Donald Trump. At the end, inside its structure bubbled up another song, “Cover Your Eyes”, in which a younger Polwart had taken oblique aim at a younger Trump, then merely a developer. Thomson’s thumb piano and crashing cymbal echoed the threatened Aberdeenshire landscape.

On “Young Man on a Mountain”, the Polwarts’ grandfather came unstuck in time: now planting trees in rural Stirlingshire, now fighting with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders through the Apennines while Thomson whisked a shaker like dead bracken. “You will take this to your grave,” the trio chorused, “all your words will fly away” — and then the melodic lines also flew apart. Polwart whispered the names of trees like a roll-call of the dead.

On “Suitcase”, to a drone of harmonium and accordion, a Kindertransport veteran insisted that “the only thing you need to know is when it’s time to go”. Over accordion arpeggios, Polwart repeated: “and he still holds his father’s hand”, the case “always packed and ready . . . ” and then an abrupt stop. This was, on the whole, a sombre evening: for every skipping “Salter’s Road” there was an implacable and thrawn “Sorry”.

The author of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, Scott Hutchison, killed himself in May, a death that resonated in Scotland’s close-knit music community like that of Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain. This song always hung between hope and despair and Hutchison’s own performances were unnerving; Polwart sang it plain and straight and harrowing. She delivered a similarly stark “Crow on the Cradle” as a Gothic lullaby, Thomson flapping her hand on her accordion like a broken wing. But a co-opting of synth-pop into the Scottish folk songbook was lighter. “I heard you on the wireless back in ’52 . . . ” she sang, to general delight.

Laws of Motion ends with a recollection of her nine-year-old self’s plans to survive nuclear war by hiding in the jam cupboard. In concert she used a different childhood memory, the earlier “Tinsel Show”. “In the east,” it began, “the fires are burning” — an ominous opening that blossomed into a love song to the nightly light show of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, sung with the focused tenderness of The Blue Nile. This is the order of alchemy that Polwart’s best songs work. ★★★★☆