James Yorkston: The Route to the Harmonium (Domino)

On his first solo record in five years, Yorkston digs deep as he pays tribute to absent friends

Released Feb 22nd, 2019 via Domino / By Ben Wood
James Yorkston: The Route to the Harmonium (Domino) Folk music has always tackled the big, primal subjects: love, death, fate. After taking time out from his solo career to make two collaborative albums and write his debut novel, James Yorkston returns with an album paying tribute to the friends he has lost.

Over the years, the former Fife Collective member's songwriting has explored both the deep, old-school folk tradition and a variety of modern, eclectic, textures with collaborators such as Four Tet and Rustin Man. This record sees him add spoken-word pieces as he explores some complicated, conflicted emotions.

Many of the pieces here set Yorkston's intimate, softly sung or spoken vocals to a smudged, impressionistic wash. Musical elements include fingerpicked guitar, obscure Swedish stringed instruments (nyckelharpa, anyone?), percussion and occasional electronics. Along the way, there are hints of Radiohead, 70s Eno and Aidan Moffat among others.

Poignantly named opener Your Beauty Could Not Save You tugs at the heartstrings and establishes the tone of the album. The following tracks explore the damage caused by religion (The Irish Wars of Independence), addiction (Like Bees to Foxglove) and the romanticism of suffering (The Blue of the Thistle) among other themes.

But while the mellower tracks are sometimes beautiful and occasionally a tad samey, the spoken-word tracks hit the hardest. My Mouth Ain't No Bible is driven along, furious in its mourning, by military tattoo drum patterns. A hugely affecting tribute to a friend and musical collaborator, it imagines itself inside the head of a huge talent who feels destined to remain a 'sideman' in their own life.

The graceful refrain of Solitary Villages All has an air of late-period Triffids. Meanwhile the final two tracks try to wrestle his messy, agonised feelings into some kind of order. The thrillingly kinetic Yorkston Athletic mirrors the way that life seems to speed up as we age, and hopes this means we are speeding towards some kind of answer.

While the album sees Yorkston put himself through the emotional wringer, he is keen to leave us on a hopeful note. The relatively upbeat, piano-led closer A Footnote to an Epitaph acknowledges his friends' suffering yet affirms: 'I wish you were here, every single one of you, but when I think of you, I think of you well'.

This is a brave, necessary record. Loss and darkness are named and acknowledged, neither shunned or romanticised. It's an honest reckoning from the sometimes tricky middle years, the lyrics a series of hard-won truths. Some people can't be saved, it recognises those of us that remain have to live with this, honour their memory and remember the good bits. Amen to that. 4/5

James Yorkston Tour Dates:

1st April, Perth, Horsecross Theatre
2nd April, Frankfurt, Brotfabrik, DE
3rd April, München, Unter Deck DE
4th April, Berlin, Heimathafen Neukölln DE
5th April, Stockholm, SWE

2nd May, Edinburgh, Summerhall
3rd May, Glasgow, Òran Mór
4th May, Airdrie, Town Hall
5th May, Eaglescliffe, Waiting Room
6th May, Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
7th May, London, Islington Assembly Hall
8th May, Reading, Reading Arts Centre
9th May, Milton Keynes, Gallery
10th May, Lancaster, Dukes
11th May, Durham, Old Cinema Launderette
13th May, Bristol, Louisiana
14th May, Cardiff, The Moon
15th May, Manchester, King’s Arms
16th May, Hebden Bridge, Trades Hall
22nd May, Johnstone, Library
23rd May, Irvine, Harbour Arts Centre
24th May, Stirling, Tolbooth

Tickets here