Few artists have managed to take advantage of the re-emergence of folk music over the past decade better than Seth Lakeman. The singer-songwriter, who burst onto the scene in 2004 with his second album, the Mercury-nominated Kitty Jay, has always been more of a journeyman than someone likely to turn heads. However, despite his relatively straightforward brand of traditional folk, Lakeman has never been short of fans.
Recorded in a studio set up in a church in East Cornwall last summer, Lakeman’s latest record Word Of Mouth continues on from where 2011’s Tales From The Barrel House left off. Just like that previous effort – which was partly recorded in a copper mine – the Devon man’s seventh album is tied in very closely with the place where it was recorded, avoiding the more polished sound that comes from a proper studio.
Ahead of the release, Lakeman spoke about the benefits of recording in the surroundings of a church, focusing specifically on the freedom and inspiration that was gifted by the process. This is evident from the very start; opener The Wanderer has an almost rustic quality, with the sternly strummed acoustic guitar forming the backbone of the song, before it breaks into a hearty, soaring chorus.
It’s followed by the rather twee Another Long Night, which meanders along harmlessly with a warm and comforting melody, as Lakeman sings: “As the winter’s shadow stalks the day/ all the hiring crews are gone.” If there’s one thing that Lakeman knows how to do, it’s how to evoke his birthplace through his lyrics and Word Of Mouth is no different, with Another Long Night depicting a veteran dock worker.
In fact, Lakeman’s fascination with telling stories of ordinary people is the central force behind the record, which includes a second disk of interviews with the real life characters of his tales. Take Last Rider, where Lakeman uses a shuffling beat and his signature fiddle playing to back-up his description of the world of a long-serving railway worker, as he sings purposefully: “For those whirling wheels of straining steel throw sparks/ and they flicker in the dawn.”
Elsewhere, Tiger is one of the more interesting songs on the record, capturing the experiences of a man during World War Two (“In ’43 a message came/ a sacrifice it seemed/ each family would leave their home/ to meet these fighting schemes”) over a tense, rumbling guitar riff. Then there’s the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their fight for workers’ rights as told through Each Man, which has an appropriately anthemic chorus.
While Lakeman has never achieved the same devotion as some of his more marketable contemporaries, there is an intelligence about the way Word Of Mouth is constructed. That said, it could be easily argued that without the poignant lyricism the record would be a bit dull. Tracks such as Bells and The Saddest Crowd almost drown in melancholia, with their brooding, delicate instrumentation instantly forgettable.
Courier is better, with Lakeman’s engrossing fiddle creating a dramatic backdrop for another of his character portraits, but Labour She Calls Home sees him return to a meandering, lightweight melody that lacks any sort of spark. It’s a problem that also befalls A Portrait Of My Wife which, while being well-intentioned, is a disappointing way to finish the first disc.
Ultimately, by the end of Word Of Mouth, there is a feeling that it is more interesting conceptually than it is musically. While the vignette structure of the record is a fascinating addition to Lakeman’s storytelling technique, the music is unremarkable. The wistful, atmospheric melodies may be suitable for the almost Chaucerian tales, but there is little here that Lakeman hasn’t already employed many times before.