The cover of Stornoway’s Tales From Terra Firma depicts a young child sitting atop a ragged bed, riding the crest of a wave on a wild sea. It’s night time and a plump moon hangs in a sky full of stars, illuminating the darkness below. It’s an evocative image, recalling childhood wonder and imagination while conjuring a sense of escape and adventure.
It makes sense for Stornoway’s second album – they must feel that they are on their own exciting journey as things have been going very right for them since they first had a demo played on BBC Oxford Introducing in 2006. Following the honour of becoming the first unsigned band to appear on Later… with Jools Holland they released their debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill on 4AD in 2010, achieving Top 20 success, critical acclaim and a devoted following. While they’ve certainly worked for their success, there have been remarkably few bumps in their irrepressible rise and they stand alongside artists like Laura Marling, Noah And The Whale and (of course) Mumford And Sons as flag-bearers for the contemporary wave of British nu-folk.
If the cover seems apt for Stornoway themselves, the title of Tales From Terra Firma underlines that this is an album concerned with discovery and experience. Rather than the fantastical adventures suggested by the artwork, however, the songs here depict more commonplace ventures into the unknown: namely getting older and falling in love. Indeed, while matters of the heart were ever present on Beachcomber’s Windowsill, here they are an overwhelming concern.
Album opener You Take Me As I Am is clearly about vocalist and lyricist Brian Briggs’ wedding and it’s a pure, humane ode to the transformative power of love. Briggs sings of being “overcome with wonder at the love around us” and how “if i were to die today, then it wasn’t all a waste”. The time after the wedding is “the first night of our future”, time stretching out before the happy couple like the sea before the intrepid child on the cover.
Later, the vivid Hook, Line, Sinker finds Briggs rapturously declaring “this feeling that courses through me is love” before joyously affirming “this is love” repeatedly. The impressive (A Belated) Invite to Eternity reflects the turbulence of love and of putting your heart in the hands of another in its shifting tempos and sees Briggs musing with childlike wonder on “how one person could thrill me, occupy me and fulfil me”. It’s sweetly obvious that he is a changed man.
Stornoway, too, are a changed band. It’s quickly apparently how much more expansive their sound is in comparison to Beachcomber’s Windowsill. On aforementioned You Take Me As I Am piano, organ and brass are added to guitar in an arrangement which is both accomplished and euphoric. The Great Procrastinator surprises with its jaunty, vaudevillian idiosyncrasy (and finds Briggs gently mocking his descriptive lyrical style with “I am a scientist with too many metaphors”) while The Ones We Hurt the Most finds a gorgeous lead harmony vocal embellished by poignant violin.
As befits a second album (and one concerned with bravely setting out to new pastures) this is most definitely a band pushing forward and experimenting with their identity. This is most obvious on album highlight Farewell Appalachia, a tour de force where dense, poetic lyrics are matched to a sophisticated, layered gothic folk backing. It’s a skilful and confident song highlighting a band which is assured and impressive. It’s only on the final November Song where they return to the more traditional folk lexicon of vocal and guitar, the intimacy allowing Briggs’ assertion that he “won’t be afraid of the changes a’comin’ while I know a love that is sure as the morning” room to shine.
If there is a complaint about the album it’s that the charming naivety of their debut is largely lost in its ambition, but no band could be expected to sustain the demeanour of their youth and it’s a churlish criticism when the results are so consistently strong. Stornoway have boldly struck out and in doing so have navigated the often choppy waters of the second album with panache.