Appropriately pea coat-laden (given that the jacket’s origins can be traced to 18th Century European navy men) stands a salty Seth Lakeman, presumably gaping at the beautiful waters off the coast of southern England, on the cover of his fourth album Poor Man’s Heaven. Instead of donning a look of inspired awe though, the British folk luminary appears anxious and apprehensive.
It’s an image that foreshadows the subject matter of nearly half of a record on which the Dartmoor native, an artist with a style of storytelling suitable for a Renaissance raconteur, spins, along with a few other tales, several sea-soaked yarns of lament. Unfortunately, it also forebodes of songwriting and production that, while solid and memorable, ultimately compromises the variety and intimacy characteristic of his earlier work in favour of a sound that is more predictable and polished.
Lakeman is not new to nautical narratives. The dramatic Lady Of The Sea on Freedom Fields and The Storm from Kitty Jay, the album that earned him a Mercury Prize nomination, are but two examples of his songs detailing tragedies at sea. However, those tracks are isolated examples on older releases in Lakeman’s repertoire. In contrast, three out of four consecutive tracks on the first half of the new album (Feather In A Storm, Crimson Dawn, and Solomon Browne) focus on shipwrecks. Furthermore, I’ll Haunt You, which contains some exquisite acoustic guitar lines, as well as Race To Be King, a lively foot-stomper showcasing frenzied fiddling and a jaw harp, perpetuate the tired sailing theme.
Repeated oceanic references aside, duplication of musical themes and the overall quality of sound serve as the greater hindrances on the new album. Replication of ideas (when comparing the songs on Poor Man’s Heaven to those on Lakeman’s earlier albums, or even to each other) is pervasive throughout the album. The chorus of the album-closer Sound Of A Drum is basically a slightly slowed version of the refrain in Feather In A Storm. In addition, one can’t help but wax nostalgic over the charming roughness of The Punch Bowl upon hearing the overly refined sound of Blood Red Sky or Cherry Red Girl.
It is with good reason, though, that Lakeman is a star, and he proves it with some very strong material. Rolling toms serve as the intro to The Hurlers, an exciting tale of how the Hurlers Stone Circles came into existence on Bodmin Moor. And the aforementioned Race To Be King, as well as the title track, put Lakeman’s impressive instrumental talents on display.
There is much to enjoy on Poor Man’s Heaven, and several tracks on the album will undoubtedly be (if they aren’t already) festival favorites. Sean Lakeman’s production work provides fullness and a harder edge to his brother’s sound, which better emulates the energy of a live event. That being said, the ambience inherent in his earlier recordings was more equipped to engage the listener not dancing in a field at the Towersey Village Festival. Moreover, the repetition of literary and musical themes creates a staleness after 11 tracks which makes absorption of the album as a whole rather challenging.