Album Reviews

Shirley Collins – Archangel Hill

(Domino) UK release date: 26 May 2023


A life-affirming encounter with British folk music royalty whose ability to communicate with her listeners as though they are the only people in the room is undimmed

Shirley Collins - Archangel Hill Shirley Collins is an inspiration. Now 87 years of age, the English folk singer is enjoying an Indian musical summer with her third release for Domino. Archangel Hill is a family album, with contributions from sister Dolly and – indirectly – Shirley’s stepfather. Its title is the name given by him to Caburn, close to Collins’ home in Lewes, Sussex. The hill adorns the record’s cover, a winsome painting by Peter Messer reflecting the outdoor recollections to come. For this is also an album with which to celebrate the open air – yet while it does so, the intimate vocals bring the most private of emotions to the fore.

Collins sings with a glint in her eye and the wind in her hair, her storytelling gifts both effortless and magical. Listeners will subconsciously lean towards the music, so compelling is her delivery – and it only takes a line of Fare Thee Well My Dearest Dear for the spell to be cast. This is a song Collins first encountered with sister Dolly in the 1970s, and where the former version had a fresh-faced innocence, now it bears the wrinkles of musical experience without losing its charm. Lost In A Wood applies a similar approach to a song first recorded in 1967. Though a downward looking number, it has an underlying strength.

This inner power is typical of Collins, who of course contracted the debilitating condition of dysphonia, rendering her voiceless for 38 long years. The inclusion here of Hand And Heart, a live recording from Sydney Opera House in 1980, just before she fell silent, reflects the heights she originally reached. Arranged by sister Dolly and accompanied by Winsome Evans on harpsichord, we hear Collins in the soprano range, the voice recognisably hers and the tone beautifully rich.

Yet the voice we hear now is the musical equivalent of a treasured oak tree, its age and experience a thing to behold, its delivery measured and barely faltering in the wind. The accompanying band deserve enormous credit here, for they inhabit the same breathing patterns as their singer, giving her all the time she needs. On a sparky account of The Captain With The Whiskers they come to the fore, and on June Apple and Swaggering Boney throw in two hugely enjoyable instrumentals, each with a spring in their step.

Darkness gnaws at the edges of the slower songs. Oakham Poachers presents a haunting melody, and while “the young men are given to frisking and fooling” on Hares On The Mountain, they do so at a distance while the pensive music plays. High And Away, meanwhile, is a strange yet captivating account of an encounter with Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle. Written by Pip Barnes, it is all too easily missed on the first play-through and finds Collins very low in her register as she tells the story of their meeting in 1959. “Tell me the tricks that Almeda can play!”, she asks against the weather-beaten tundra. A guitar-led postlude emerges, beautifully played by regular collaborator Ian Kearey and offering moments of silvery beauty as Collins exits stage left.

In keeping with the oak tree parallel, there is a deep sense of history and tradition here. Collins is fully aware of her position as a custodian of these songs, borrowed from or related to a timeless library of folk music, with a keen awareness of their past and future. Her appreciation of the countryside, specifically Sussex, is clear throughout. The spoken word postlude proclaims that the “ancient towns of Rye, Hastings and Winchelsea, though times may try to oust their names…will never die”.

Archangel Hill is another life-affirming encounter with a remarkable artist. Shirley Collins may be British folk music royalty, but this record once again shows her ability to communicate with her listeners as though they are the only people in the room.


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