An album captioned “Hymns for a dying planet and a culture in decay” is never going to be a barrel of monkeys. When the composer is the hit-and-miss – though never predictable – Hawksley Workman, however, you can burn that assumption like a jostick.
Retreating from the glam pop hijinx of his last album Lover/Fighter, Treeful Of Starling is every bit as folky, organic and traditional as its title suggests. Big news in Canada but less so elsewhere, this is not the kind of album to break through into the mainstream consciousness – but that’s besides the point.
All synthetic sounds have been removed, but the inimitable, glottal-heavy Hawksley timbre is retained, as is his ear for melody and his well-known penchant for poetic wordcraft (this being tundra folk, the words are afforded as much attention as the noise behind them).
And so here we have unhurried, mournful opener A Moth Is Not A Butterfly, wrought through simple piano parts and a gradual, harmonious crescendo, topped off with a nursery school banjo solo. His unabashed romantic side soon emerges with Hey Hey Hey (My Little Beauty), which harks back to the days of a younger, less-jaded Hawksley.
All very pleasant, then, and certainly different from his last few chart-oriented efforts. Yet this is not new ground for the Canadian troubadour, but rather a more comprehensive visit to folky ground compared to his previous, all-too-brief forays.
So what’s the problem with that? Well, at just nine songs and some 30-odd minutes, there’s a suspicion that the rocking chair ideals on display here are in rather short supply. Could it be that Hawksley – also a published poet – had the literary inspiration, but not the musical equivalent to go with it?
Maybe so. Even on a bad day, however, Mr Workman can sculpt a tune with the best of them: in a strictly musical sense, Treeful continues unremarkably but agreeably, helped in no small part by his nurtured wordplay (the funereal It’s A Long Life To Always Be Longing being a particularly good example).
Like a spoken word album set to music, Treeful Of Starling demands your undivided attention. Without it, the affair passes rather anonymously – and that’s a shame for an artist of Hawksley Workman’s character. Unfortunately, he is yet to find the happy medium between filthy pop and undiluted, Muskoka folk.