For Bella Hardy, Love songs represents a full circle ahead. The Derbyshire singer burst onto the scene in 2007 with Night visit, a collection of traditional folk songs centering on the twilight return of dead lovers. Since then, she has had a wide-ranging output: original songs about coercive control; an earworm from a brass duet (“The only thing to do”); frenzied feminist anthems. She made a whole album around a residence in Yunnan, to the sound of Chinese traditions Guzheng; more recently, much of Hi Sami was written on a ranch in Tennessee.
It’s been five years since that last recording, and this new compilation can be read as drawing a line under the first phase of his career. Love songs returns to the traditional songs she started with, with just four originals. It has a fresh, almost punk energy from having been recorded in three flat days, with just Hardy herself on vocals and fiddle, Mike Vass on guitar and piano and Tom Gibbs’ clarinet.
It opens with a sweet fiddle tune, “Summer Daylight Winter Darkness”, a commission for a celebration of English folk and poetry, Gibbs’ piano belatedly joining as a liquid second voice. Then it’s into “Hares on the Mountain”, an old song probably best known in Shirley Collins’ version. “If all young men swam like fish in water,” she sings, extending the last four words in a shimmer of scales, “how many young girls would strip down and dive in afterwards?” Its slow, deliberate delivery highlights the song’s eerie fantasy. There’s a seething energy to “My Johnny Was a Shoemaker,” reminiscent of the instrumental energy of the Steeleye Span recording half a century ago. And “Sprig of Thyme” is a cousin of “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”, his pun on thyme/cyclical and circular time.
Not all traditional songs work perfectly: “Awake Awake”, a version of “Silver Dagger”, is taken so slowly that it borders on soporific, without the insistence or threat of other performances. The Night visit the song “Lowlands Away”, often sung like a slum, is also chilling. But Hardy’s own compositions have his characteristic keen eye for detail. ‘The Navigator’s Bride’ is a touching social story of the navigators who dug the Cowburn Tunnel through the Edale Hills. It traces their “power and will.” . . strength and skill,” their drinking and hard-fighting, with Gibbs’ clarinet shouting a shepherd’s daughter love song.
‘Love songs‘ is published by Noah Records