Heart’s Ease’s existence is unfathomable, if too familiar
38 years. That was the gap between Shirley Collins’ 2016 release Lodestar and her previous record. It’s often said that artists have a lifetime to write their first record and six months to write their second, so it’s reasonable to be even more hesitant about Collins’ second post-hiatus release, Heart’s Ease. Perhaps Collins was aware of this, because Heart’s Ease is primarily composed of traditional British folk standards. The result is well-produced and performed, especially for a woman who earned her legendary status and has every excuse to half-ass this, even if there is none of the experimentation of her best work.
The fact that Collins was inspired to return to music by David Tibet of Current 93, one of the only acts for whom the term ‘apocalyptic folk’ is appropriate, is not surprising. Tibet’s record label Durtro released her 1992 compilation Fountain of Snow, she appeared on several of his records and the mind-bending turns that Current 93 takes belie a genuine love for traditional folk. Collins also had some boundary-pushing records in her time. Her work with Davy Graham was a spectacular bridge between folk’s austerity and jazz’s unique rhythms, and her collaborations with her sister Dolly infused her music with the instrumentation of the Renaissance era and unusual, exotic texture.
Though Lodestar was not among her most experimental, it still began with a ten-minute multi-part suite that included a three-minute hurdy-gurdy solo. Now, Heart’s Ease does not solely consist of Collins and her guitar; there are fiddles on “Sweet Greens and Blues,” a quivering banjo on “Locked in Ice” and the guitar is given sunnier melodies on “Rolling in the Dew” and “Canadee-i-o” alongside minor-key melancholic hymns like “Wondrous Love” and “Tell Me True.”
However, the additional instruments largely serve the same purpose and don’t add new texture or flavor. The only two moments with any sort of novelty are the final two tracks. “Orange in Bloom” is a jig anchored by a concertina and jangly percussion that builds and other instruments well yet would have benefitted from more energy. “Crowlink,” the closing song, features the ambiance of crashing waves and bird chirps over sustained electronic notes and Collins’ buried voice. It’s an intriguing effect akin to the neo-psychedelia of Doves. While it captures the feeling of staring out from the titular hill that overlooks the English Channel, these sounds needed more time to develop or better sequencing to not feel tacked on.
Collins quit music because she lost her voice in the aftermath of a painful divorce. One would never guess from her warm, fragile yet captivating delivery, aided by an intimate production style reminiscent of Conor Oberst’s Ruminations, where the record could have been recorded in her living room. The acoustic guitars are stripped down and resonant, and the whole aesthetic does great justice to these accepted folk standards, sounding rustic and authentic without feeling dated or archaic. It’s a touch homogeneous and requires a specific mood to get into before listening, yet Heart’s Ease makes it all sound so effortless and destroys the notion that Collins could be past her prime. Irrespective of its quality or undercooked new ideas, Heart’s Ease demands and deserves respect and admiration.