Album Review: The Unthanks – Diversions, Vol 4: The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake

What can a song do to you? It can change your life, save your life, bring a memory or even a person back to life, even just for a fleeting moment. On their new album, Diversions, Vol 4: The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, The Unthanks have revived the faded splendour of a women whose music was never heard beyond her own family in her own lifetime. In the process they turn a flickering, forgotten candle into a burning fire that feels both revelatory and relevant.

Despite their obvious quality the original versions of these songs are limited in their potential for wide consumption, having been home-recorded long ago only on reel to reel. They also have a somewhat stilted, distant feel due to the received pronounciation of Molly’s voice. Here the natural accents of The Unthanks, steeped in the folk tradition of the North-East of England bring a real honest quality and warmth to Molly’s songs. Therefore these cover versions don’t so much interpret her music as bring her ideas fully to fruition.

The opening song reminds us that the past is a house full of treasures. Music is the key to finding our history, our history is the key to finding ourselves. Folk music, to its credit, has always understood this. These songs often use the same simple piano accompaniment that Molly did but behind this base other instruments develop the sound. There are also poems by Molly on this record, read by her daughter. Sometimes they are woven into the textures of the songs, other times left to stand alone. The simple truth of Molly’s words often takes your breath away, especially on The Shell.

One song tells us to Dream your dreams if it’s the last thing you do, never mind if they don’t ever come true. It’s beautifully sung and doubly poignant in the context. Who knew if Molly ever dreamed of performing these songs in front of an audience? What mattered is that she wrote them, that we can imagine that she might have imagined.

How Wild the Wind Blows echoes the distant crackle of the originals, although the added layer of folk instrumentation creates a haunting sound. The Road to the Stars begins with the line Everywhere you go there’s a kind of glow and this really sums up the feeling of these songs. When the voices and harmonies are this gorgeous it’s hard not to get emotional as you listen.

Do You Ever Remember? has the repeated refrain Never forget – but the memory is not the pain of the past but the understanding that time can heal. The First Day begins with a sigh then the sound of water before the piano starts. The voices are soft, the lyrics stunningly optimistic despite the melancholy of the voice. DESTINY, DO YOUR WORST. Such hope for the future, such acceptance of the nature of life, well that’s what poetry truly is.

Molly Drake may be long gone, her life filled with tragedy but it’s a gift of history that what we have left is this music. This voice from the past has been more than  reinterpreted – she has been resurrected. To call this album a ‘diversion’ is a misnomer, as this feels like some of The Unthanks most important work to date.

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