In the two years since the release of Battle And Victory, Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe has duetted with James Yorkston and flirted with electro chill-out on Susuma Yokota’s recent recording Mother. With Wrought Iron, the Lancashire lass returns to the fragility that characterised her debut.
The tender opening of the lyricless Cairns and its layers of choral vocals mark out early on the quiet but mesmerising nature of this album. Cunliffe possesses a delicate, cracked vocal style which, together with the sparse instrumentation, initially gives rise to a ghostly atmosphere.
But her poetic lyrics turn out to be overwhelmingly positive, with a strong flowing narrative about courage, strength and survival. She will take on the hurricane when it comes for her (Bring On The Hurricane) and she will survive the winter as early springtime sits in wait for her (Winter, Baby).
A clue to the album title’s meaning comes in the upbeat Feet Of Courage which tells us that as iron is wrought to make it stronger, so too should the cowardly heart be subject to adversity and experience to strengthen it. Trundling through Lay Low, Cunliffe recounts that, when she finds herself alone and scared, she remembers advice she once took that helps her move on. This is intensely personal stuff.
The instrumentation relies less on the harp and the strings that featured so heavily on Battle And Victory, with her piano instead dominating. Flashes of percussion on Feet Of Courage, trumpets on the simple Divining and the rhythmic bells of Cat Bells and Winter, Baby invest other sounds into the project, adding interest to the overall sound. But really it’s what she leaves out that draws the listener in.
Tow The Line and Ruins are both stunning demonstrations of control with their gentle melodies developing at their own pace without any percussive interference. This general sense of space and freedom, and the solitude that comes with it, reflects the isolated retreats in the Faroe Islands, the Lake District and rural Spain in which the album was made.
Wrought Iron is a beautiful, fragile work. It’s more consistent than Battle And Victory, with a remarkably focussed sound. While her roots may be found in the folk genre Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe transcends it and, here, proves she has the power to move people.