Seth Lakeman’s latest album, Tales From the Barrel House, is a work of outstanding originality and integrity. A concept album with a difference, much of it was recorded in a disused cooperage, making full use of the environment with Lakeman himself playing all the instruments.
From the powerful raw and dissonant opening of the first track More than Money, written for the miners also known as ’breakers’ and recorded in a disused mine, Lakeman’s songs command the listener’s attention. He combines strong stories, powerful lyrics, and highly skilled musicianship.
The album is reminiscent of another renowned concept album, Jon Boden’s Songs From the Flood Plain. While Boden’s creation is set in a desolate future, Tales From the Barrel House mourns a fading past. It is a testament to a range of dying professions - carpenters, blacksmiths, miners, watchmen, distillers, fishermen. Lakeman explains in interview that it was ’something that I wanted to bring back to life’. He creates compelling stories for each of these characters and matches the music to the tales.
There is a vigour and a pace to this recording. While each song is a self-contained story, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The careful sequencing of the songs gives shape, with moments of intensity interspersed with lyrical relaxation. The songs are framed by the sound of birdsong, the natural world beckoning from outside.
The rousing opening song is followed by the dark and reflective Blacksmith’s Prayer. The quick-paced ticking Watchmaker’s Rhyme leads into Hard Road which has an almost country upbeat feel to it. Then the lyrical The Sender precedes the dirge-like Salt from our Veins. A particularly powerful tune in the folk tradition, Brother of Penryn comes next. Then the dreamy Apple of his Eye comes, followed by the resolute Higher Walls, and finally the masterful The Artisan about a carpenter. This last song is a powerful end to the album, with an elegiac feel, and Lakeman’s singing is heartfelt.
The music is elemental, and conjures up the sounds of age-old chanting as well as the elements themselves - earth, air, sky and water. There is an ancient feel to it, with dark insistent throbbing melodies supported by tight fiddle playing, and a range of instruments including cello, bouzouki and banjo. He uses an old Salvation Army drum rescued from a junk shop which provides an insistent undertone, and a variety of percussion instruments from the cooperage. Lakeman explains that he was ’careful to choose the right instruments’ for each profession. He is ’collecting sounds and storing them for the future’. And he gives a whole new meaning to ’heavy metal’ when he wields a hammer in the Blacksmith’s Prayer - ’man, that hurts your arm!’
This song, like many others, has strong lyrics: ’My fire extinct, my forge decayed / By the side of my bench my old visor’s laid / My anvil and hammer lie gathering dust / My powerful bellows have lost their thrust’. The prayer opens with these words which frame the move from iron to steel, ending with a final nail in the coffin: ’My fire extinct, my forge decayed / By the side of my bed these words are laid / Burnt brittle hands lie gathering dust / Pounding hearts have lost their thrust....Hearts now cased in steel...’
Tales from the Barrel House is a successful living testament to the professions Lakeman wishes to remember. It is a record that bears repeated listening, and an invitation for the listener to go hear Lakeman perform it live on his upcoming tour.