There are very few voices in music to match that of Josephine Foster; something of an acquired taste, but one worth giving time to become accustomed to. At times she taps into the kooky weirdness of Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom, occasionally she’s the organic representation of a singing saw, and, every so often, she’s the strange old woman singing wartime tunes at her own reflection in the window on the bus to nowhere. So there’s no better person to appraise her idiosyncratic body of work than Foster herself.
Usually when someone looks back over their musical history, they re-work their oldest songs or their classic album; here, rather than a snapshot of her entire career, Foster looks mainly to her last album I’m A Dreamer (2013) and 2008’s This Coming Gladness. Only the title track really digs deep and heads all the way back to her 2004 work with Born Heller. Where I’m A Dreamer felt as if you’d wondered into an old drinking shack after hours to hear the melancholy drinkers attempting to make themselves merry, singing along to a honky tonk piano, No More Lamps In The Morning feels like a much more personal affair, as if to be enjoyed and understood on a one-to-one basis.
The songs from This Coming Gladness, meanwhile, benefit from a slightly expanded musical palette, Foster’s nylon string guitar accompanied here by her husband Victor Herrero on Portuguese guitar and, on two tracks, by Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s cello, but the sedate pace and production keeps things at a truly intimate level.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this comes in the shape of The Garden Of Earthly Delights, where the cello adds a languid bottom end whilst the guitars shimmer like sunlight through the leaves. There’s no urgency here, just an elegant and otherworldly tone that is quite simply beautiful. A Thimbleful Of Milk is stripped back, with delicate guitar picking gently supporting Foster’s ethereal croons, which at some points reach heights that don’t seem quite human, but more like the moans of a Scooby-Doo ghost (this is better than it sounds).
My Dove, My Beautiful One takes the words of James Joyce and places them over a simplistic guitar strum; Foster’s breathing is audible, making it feel as if she’s singing directly into your ear. The guitar accompaniment that joins at the mid-point calls to mind the woozy genius of John Frusciante’s Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt, giving the whole thing a distinctly crooked overtone. It’s not the only song to feature poetry from one of the greats: the words for opening track Blue Roses were written by Rudyard Kipling.
Although there’s nothing ostensibly new about this album, the overall feel and vibe running throughout does at least give a feeling of overall unity. These songs have been given a uniquely peaceful freedom. They float like butterflies, and sting much like butterflies too – nothing here has pointy edges, it’s far too laid back for that. If the cello occasionally performs a few unsettling squalls, or Foster’s voice climbs the octaves unexpectedly, such as on the re-dreamt folk-operatics of Second Sight, there’s soon a moment of calming tranquillity to redress the balance. The album closes with Magenta, a barely there and spectral reworking that neatly sums up the album as a whole as an exercise in space, elasticity, and freedom. From start to finish, it’s an unmitigated success.