“The pandemic gave me a real determination to come out musically stronger and I really dug deep into myself for this album,” says Seth Lakeman. “Being able to record and play with the band again was really quite spiritual.” Covid isolation has inspired a thousand musical projects, from lo-fi experiments via baroque electronic confections, to self-exploratory introspective musings and songs about how weird it was when you couldn’t even go down the pub. But Lakeman is seemingly one of the few musicians who has responded to the lockdown months with the philosophy, “hell, let’s just write some big tunes then play them with a kick-arse band”. This honesty and likeable simplicity reflects what’s best about Make Your Mark, as well as informing the less enticing elements.
It’s a cliché to liken a musician’s work to their birthplace, but these sturdy songs sound as though they’re built to stand tall and resilient in a buffeting Devon wind. These tracks are big-boned and sinewy, bold tunes that stride stoically where other folk artists might soar ostentatiously or trip along pertly – which must have been a change for Benji Kirkpatrick, best known for playing in Bellowhead, officially the cheekiest folk wink-droppers of their generation. His performances here on chiming mandolin and other stringed instruments have an elegant directness that’s as liable to bring to mind early ’90s Peter Buck as Simon Mayor or your favourite folkie. But if one were to pick this band’s star it might just be Alex Hart, who adds backing vocals that temper and sweeten Lakeman’s clamorous lead, as demonstrated by the drone-driven Love Will Still Remain, where she’s soft and sinuous on the verses, and icily imperative on the choruses.
Bound To Someone has a heart-tugging melody that recalls Christy Moore in intimate mood, and its opening “His face was rough and rugged/ Wild as a stirring breeze/ Hard as the granite clifftop” is typical of the album’s thematic thread of humanity living with – or against – nature. Swaying ballad The Lark celebrates the natural world, whilst the atmospheric Shoals To Turn is more explicitly conservationist, and more than one listener will interpret the album’s opening salvo, “Did you hear the final warning?/ Too late, too loud”, as having an apocalyptically ecological tone. A high point comes with The Giant, which uses the language of high myth and folk balladry to tell the story of a beached whale, and a concerted effort to save it, whisked along with one of Lakeman’s trademark rousing fiddle melodies. At the end the song gets misty-eyed about the good that can be found in people, remembering that “There are those that detest and deprave/ But there on the edge of the wave-torn rocks/ There were those with the power to save”.
Elsewhere, the album moves from wearing its heart on its sleeve, to ripping that sleeve off and waving it aloft behind the barricades. Side By Side and Underground are both blood-stirring clarions, and if they lack a little subtlety, the energy is infectious. But the title track is an extended riff on Rakim’s claim that “it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”, which has the platitudinous feel of a hastily composed graduation speech, and the single Higher We Aspire is just a collection of somewhat tired saws. (Top tip: your album should never have more than two lyrics that could be published on Facebook under a picture of a tai chi master silhouetted on a beach at sunset.) The music can also sometimes tip into the banal, exhibiting the clumpy preachiness of worthy ‘80s rock – it’s not too hard to draw a line between Side By Side and John Farnham’s You’re The Voice.
However, closing track Constantly dispels any such concerns. It’s a long and mournful night breeze of a song, promising that the narrator will continue to exist in streams, frosts and lonely hills. It may be a message from a departed loved one, a continuation of the naturalist theme, or the most beautiful adaptation of Ecclesiastes’ line “all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” in two and half thousand years, but it certainly makes its mark.