Album Review: Rachel Baiman – Common Nation of Sorrow

Earlier this year Rachel Baiman previewed some of these songs during her set at Celtic Connections, and on the strength of that performance I’ve been looking forward to hearing this new album ever since. ‘Common Nation of Sorrow’ offers thoughtful, state of the world folk music – a rallying call to unite against the suffering caused by economic and political oppression.

In keeping with the powerful work of her album ‘Shame’ the music is driven by the violin, banjo and traditional Americana influences. Self-produced by Baiman and mixed by Tucker Martine there is a sparseness to the sound, almost mournful at times, which allows for the serious nature of the message to take centre stage.

Our mothers loved us fiercely though they knew not what to do,’ Baiman sings on opening song ‘Some Strange Notion’. She’s a sympathetic, compassionate lyricist, raised by a political family herself. Baiman goes on to offer us a map towards a better future, one that may even heal such deep generational pain: ‘But the dead will finally sleep so sweet when the people rise at last.’

The only problem with being so awake to the suffering of others, is the way it can impact on your own mental health. On ‘Annie’, featuring Erin Rae, she sings about how being eager to ‘soak’ up the world, causes pain in itself. The whistling in the song tries to remind us that a melody can be enough to lift the burden, even if only for a short while. ‘She Don’t Know What to Sing About Anymore’ explores the doubt of a performer trying to find a joyful sound in a ever darkening world.

A re-worked version of John Hartford’s piercing ‘Self Made Man’ exposes the hypocritical arrogance of the rich man, who tramples over everything and everyone they see. Her sneering, sarcastic tone is nicely contrasted with the chirpy, cheerful musical accompaniment. ‘Bad Debt’ offers a self-deprecating take on mistakes made, showing she is unafraid to address personal failings alongside those systematic ones beyond her control.

The brilliant ‘Old Songs Never Die’, is a commentary on the recent selling off of musical rights by the legends, concluding that no-one can own a song once it’s inside the heart of a listener.

‘Old Flame’ is gorgeous, letting the fiddle take the lead on a mournful song about loss and how hearing an old song by an ex-love can be an emotionally devastating experience. A haunting tribute to Luke Bell, who sadly died too young.

The final song acknowledges that ‘The ways of the world will break your heart’ and that is the sad truth which simmers underneath many of these songs. Despite this she doesn’t despair, instead on ‘Bitter’ she offers us a solution. ‘I shouldered it all and walked on,’ she sings, a reminder that we can at least try to make life easier for those around us.

Working together, sharing music and stories, seeking a fairer future is the work folk musicians have done for generations. ‘Common Nation of Sorrow’ continues in that tradition, offering a collection of wise songs which address the problems of the world with a critical eye but ultimately a hopeful heart. A worthy and worthwhile listen.

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