Album Review: Karine Polwart – Laws of Motion

Following a project as powerful and successful as Wind Resistance might have been daunting to some, but the success of that work seems instead to have given Karine Polwart continued confidence and freedom to fully realise her artistic vision. On this new album ‘Laws of Motion’ she confronts the modern world and its destructive forces with an unflinching eye. In the music and the message there is much quiet empathy to admire.

Karine Polwart is an artist who defies easy categorisation. To say she’s the leading voice of Scottish folk music with a deep understanding of the past is as much true as it is to say she’s an independent innovator concerned with the future. Her subtle sonic soundscapes have been created with the help of her brother Steven Polwart and musician Inge Thomson, the sublime work of all three spin unique textures into the threads of these songs.

The character of Ophelia who drowned in her own madness is evoked in the dreamy, atmospheric lament which opens the album. Polwart is referencing the hurricane rather than the heroine but the song equally captures the sense of Shakespearean tragedy in the unravelling of the song. There’s threat everywhere, from inside your own head and the world around – we are always at the mercy of powers beyond our control.

Title track Laws of Motion is an immigrant song, telling of people fleeing from ‘gun and master’. Compassionate kindness is deeply woven in her words, suggesting the laws of motion which create migration are natural, and therefore unstoppable. Who doesn’t want another chance? Polwart asks. She wants us to see ourselves in the suffering of others, to understand why walls and barbed wire aren’t the answers. How can anybody blame them? She asks, sadly.

And unfortunately many people do have hate and ignorance in their heart when it comes to this issue and vote accordingly, as addressed by the next song – a spoken word protest against the 45th President of the United States. I first heard ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’ live at Celtic Connections last year and from the moment she began the song I was stunned by its poetic power. On record it loses none of the impact, sounding as politically charged and compassionately felt as anything I have heard this year.

To say this is an attack on Trump does not do it justice. Yes, she condemns his character with some of the most prescient lines you’ll ever hear: ‘you who see nothing but your own face in the sheen of the Hudson River’ (please read the lyrics in full) but she also puts him in a wider context of the history of humanity and Scotland itself.

And it’s surely not a coincidence that there is no pause between this song and the start of Suitcase, about the Kindertransport evacuees of the Second World War. It’s a warning – we can’t keep making the same mistakes. As Polwart explains, “It’s also dedicated to all those who flee still, because they have to.”  On Cornerstone, a song deeply rooted in Scotland and the history of those who work the land and sea she sings: Be still, be still as you watch the sky / tread lightly, as you pass on by and listen. She implores us all to listen and learn. On Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart, she has another moment of clarity: To tend this earth is all we can do with this life. Those who think themselves above nature are fools. After all, nothing endures but the land.

These serious songs have a lightness of touch, a sparseness which lets the music breathe and the ideas live. Crow on the Cradle adds an undercurrent of menace to the gentle folk strumming. Album closer Cassiopeia is an all too real dystopian nightmare, imagining the end of the world, using old news reels about the potential nuclear holocaust and Polwart’s own memories of the Cold War. It’s an unsettling way to finish the album. And yet the conclusion is defiant. We are going to be survivors, she repeats with hopeful conviction.

Laws of Motion is an astonishing achievement, an album that deserves to have its bold and melodious songs heard by as many people as possible. Now if only we could get a copy sent to the White House…

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