Written by: Dave Cantrell
As a listener it’s always seemed a tricky business when a songwriter, with primarily just an acoustic and a steady voice, makes what arrives with an apparently easy touch land with such gravity that you can’t take your ears off it. This was true with the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, it was true of Judy Collins, Judee Sill (my lord was it true for her), of that entire pantheon and it’s been true of Bill Pritchard for damn near forty years now – though it should noted that he’s seldom been exclusively acoustic as will soon be apparent – and the work here partnering with poet Patrick Woodcock on the crackingly exquisite Sings Poems By… (issued May 5th on Tapete) will only carve his name ever deeper into the marble walls of that pantheon.
Woodcock, himself a talent that will long keep those stone carvers busy, can, like many writers, seem a quiet presence in a noisy, unforgiving world, a balm of sorts, avuncular and steady but in truth, also like many – hell, most – writers of of any consequence, the words he proffers to the page limn the marrow of human existence with a keen, worldly, unsparing heart that may conceivably be expected from a former Canadian turned Nova Scotian perched above the Arctic Circle that also made the crucial effort to exile himself to Africa and a number of other elsewheres so as to broaden his inborn Nordic perspective. He is, in short, a poet, devoted to the word so long as that word is itself devoted to the pangs and contradictions, the folly and too-rare redemption, the inveterate disappointments – and intemperate beauties – of this ever perplexing mortal experience.
Drawn together by Woodcock’s initiative as a longtime Pritchard fan – from the depths of the lockdown he sent the singer a single poem asking if it might be set to song – the two, over the course of the next couple years, expanded that very well-received suggestion into the full-length now before us and whereas the strictures of the pandemic spurred a host of peculiar creative opportunities that not infrequently brought results marked by an odd if not sublime magic, from our vantage very few reached Sings Poems‘ heights. Even at their quietest these tracks resound, their shrewd complexities echoing off the studio walls in ways most lyrics wouldn’t dare, would seldom even contemplate. Through Pritchard and the poet’s steadily fervent determination, a shared long-distance focus became laser-like and intimate. The result, via a type of simpatico osmosis, is such that we find that ancient formulation about a thing being greater than the sum of its parts exemplified here nearly beyond measure, a statement that holds even when the mood of a track borders on the mellow and jaunty such as “The Lowering” does kicking off the record.
Infused with an almost tropical groove, that opener actually sets something of a template in that you’ll find that such a relative lightness of touch behind lines like “grappling with the fall/before I knew what the fall was” which anyone in their young adulthood that dealt with existential drift will surely recognize, or “I stood outside/drank to breathe in the lowering” (which serves as the track’s gently gorgeous chorus) affords them the tension they need to provide the song with its desired force. Throughout this album – and arguably through much of Pritchard’s work – one comes to realize that genius spoken quietly is genius spoken so clearly it effectively becomes loud to a point you can’t not hear it. This is, in essence, the ‘paradox inherent’ here and it is quite powerful.
“Lance,” with more of a ‘full band’ accompaniment (a cello even lowing up in the mix near the end), is what one might call “shimmeringly straightforward,” an almost contradictory turn of phrase that could just as easily been applied to the Jazz Butcher at his peak and the comparison is not an unreasonable one in terms of these songs’ hooks and crannies. Add in a poet’s eye, a poet’s textual sensibility that’s more or less like a Baudelarian Frank O’Hara for the slowly disintegrating 21st C. and, well, it must be admitted this combination of talents is on to something. “Art in G Sharp,” with its acoustic Scarborough Fairish arrangement, skewers, in a mildly scathing manner, art critics’ lost or forgotten grasp of the child-like joy that spurs the process in the first place while the multi-layered “Floe,” the poet himself at the mic this time, takes a surreal, impressionistic curve through a dire and frozen and utterly transfixing Russian cityscape that, with the unsparingness of its lyric (“the management of time was kept by an hourglass bladder that turned every ten minutes and there were no bathrooms“) and the full throttle churn it shifts into toward the end, may just be this record’s most wonderfully unsettling track, a conclusion a fair few of the other cuts might grouse about and they’d have a point. To wit:
The deft and uptempo “Wind” has the nerve to get all buoyant in the face of mystery which, when presented with such a succinct chorus (“wind is what it turns you [x3] into“) should, we reckon, be expected; “Grave Men,” plaintive and reflective yet full-throated for all that, finds the writer back in Russia someplace, that someplace a graveyard with the weeds and the smashed vodka bottles where a certain grace rises ineluctably from the unknowns lain beneath him before some sense of trespass ushers him away; the softly treading but on-edge “Little Ones” (“treasure them/ anxiously“) poignant of horn and a mournful hope of piano; the rather astonishing “Balcony” that ends affairs by transitioning chrysalis-like from an elegiac recital – this, too, in Woodcock’s own voice – rising out of a lonely, snow-lashed, endless dead of night into a rocked-up instrumental surging with a life-lived exuberance before, in its final moments, fading back to Woodcock in his measured poet’s baritone and cadence uttering seven short words that may well have you falling to your knees, metaphorically or otherwise. We’re not going to give those words away here – out of respect for listener and artist alike we insist your discover them for yourself – but suffice to say context-as-closure has seldom wielded such impact.
And, really, that’s the utter gist about Sings Poems By: it carries impact, lays it at your feet, lines the boulevards with it, somehow makes itself part of your air. That impact comes from the record’s candor – we might tempt credulity again by suggesting the phrase ‘in-your-face subtlety’ – in Pritchard’s masterful, devotional labor at bringing the written word to musical life, in the no uncertain degree to which the two artists quite clearly, quite avidly, respect each other. And, ultimately, it comes in that very simple but notoriously elusive thing, the work itself. The labor is as brilliantly evident as the love on this album, and given the depths of talent and perspective both of them bring it’s no surprise – but nonetheless a delight – that the record is, from every angle, the very definition of a creative success. Bravo, gentlemen, bravo.[get Sings and get thrilled on any format here] [pre-order Farhang: Poems, Book 1 – in which every poem on this album will be included – here]