It’s been five years since we last heard from Emma Pollock, and it’s clear from the outset that In Search Of Harperfield is something of a labour of love. Her third album since her former band The Delgados split over ten years ago, the title comes from the name of the first house that her parents bought together, and it was inspired by the deaths of both her mother and grandmother, estranged for most of their lives, but who died within seven hours of each other last year.
Inevitably, there are feelings of sadness and regret all over this album, but it’s not necessarily a depressing listen. Pollock has always shown, both with The Delgados and in her solo career, a uncanny knack for a pop hook, and there are plenty of impressive and unusual arrangements on display throughout In Search Of Harperfield.
Parks And Recreation employs some unusual time signatures and lots of handclaps to produce a lovely, left-field pop gem, and opening track Cannot Keep A Secret nicely balances light and shade, the portentous, piano-led verses making an attractive contrast to the moment when the chorus bursts into life, letting in some light.
Then there’s the starkly beautiful Intermission, which simply features Pollock singing over a string section. One of the darkest moments, it describes a succession of hospital visits to a terminally ill family member, Pollock’s voice soaring with emotion on lines like “We push in the years ‘cos we want to hang on”. On the other end of the spectrum are the rollicking, bouncy Vacant Stare and the ’60s influenced sunny pop of Don’t Make Me Wait.
In Search Of Harperfield is very much an album of two halves: while the first is full of these imaginative, unusual pop songs, the second half takes a more reflective tone. Although the energy levels drop, this doesn’t affect the interest levels, and there’s still some lovely stuff to be found in the closing tracks: Dark Skies is reminiscent of mid-period Suzanne Vega, while the closer is just stunning, a piano-led lament which sees Pollock writing to a succession of, as the title suggests, Old Ghosts.
Admittedly, some of the songs on the second half of the album drag a bit – Monster In The Pack and In The Company Of The Damned seem a bit directionless at times, especially when compared to the sparkle that surrounds them. But Pollock never lets the darkness that inspired these songs overwhelm her. Although most of these songs are about loss, the illness of a parent and estrangement, there’s a cathartic feel to much of the album.
It’s that catharsis that makes In Search Of Harperfield such a success – it’s intense and often bleak, but never a chore to listen to. It probably won’t break her out of the cult status in which she’s often resided, but for those who seek it out, it will prove an immensely rewarding listen.