Despite being the progeny of folk royalty in the forms of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, there’s very little that’s traditional about Eliza Carthy. Not your regular folkie, she’s worked with the likes of Paul Weller and Nick Cave and has constantly explored new and ever more intriguing sounds – even dabbling with drum ‘n’ bass on Red Rice back in 1998.
No surprise then that Neptune, Carthy’s third album of purely original material, dabbles in as many musical directions as the lady herself has in hair colours. There are torch songs, jazzy ballads, uproarious bar-room stompers and ‘state of the nation’ political folk. As ever with Carthy, it’s a dizzying ride, but never a dull one.
Her lyrics are as sharp as ever, with the opening couplet of Blood On My Boots a contender for most intriguing of the year: “I was drinking champagne with Jerry Springer.” It’s a rollicking opener, with some pounding piano close to the fore, offsetting the dark, violent imagery of the lyrics.
Elsewhere, it’s mostly autobiographical, with the birth of Carthy’s daughter obviously influencing the bittersweet lament of Write A Letter and the brooding, brilliant closer of Thursday. The latter is particularly affecting, with Carthy singing of the guilt and pain of being away from her child to a ghostly backing of just piano and cello.
Britain Is A Carpark is the most obviously political track here, cleverly weaving the lyrics of the old folk standard The Oak And The Ash into a modern-day tale where the trees have been “covered with tarmac and sold to NCP”, while also making sharp observations on immigration and expatriates who move to Spain. It’s an exhilarating number, especially towards the end where Carthy delves into some rapid-fire lyrics sung in Spanish.
It’s tracks like this that recall none other than the late, much lamented Kirsty MacColl – clever, literate pop songs with both a story and a message. It’s especially notable in the bright, calypso tinged Monkey, and in the bustling tango of War, the blaring horns and bright handclaps bringing to mind MacColl’s Cuban adventure Tropical Brainstorm.
She’s never sounded better than on Romeo, a yearning, soulful ballad lamenting the disintegrating relationship with a lover who “even when sleeping, gives me no safety”. Despite the fact he “smells of whiskey and stout”, has an eye for the ladies and likes to “bawl at teenagers”, Carthy keeps coming back to the same question: “Why won’t he love me again?” Like much of her work, the smoothness of the melody masks a sad, poignant undertone.
There’s even a nod to Adele-style heartbroken pop/soul on Revolution. While it’s unlikely that Neptune will have quite the sort of chart success Adele’s 21 has enjoyed, it’s a fine example of Eliza Carthy’s huge talent.