While James Yorkston is a much-loved yet still underrated stalwart of Scottish music (we’re now more than 20 years on since his debut album), there’s no denying that Nina Persson’s presence will grab the attention of the casual listener here. Yorkston continues his partnership with The Second Hand Orchestra, following on from 2021’s The Wide, Wide River, but those who recall The Cardigans with glee will surely boost the profile of this record.
Persson kickstarts the album, helming ‘Sam and Jeanie McGreagor’, her vocal fills carrying as much weight as the lyrics. While the opener is short, it welcomes you warmly.
There are many nods to family life, with ‘An Upturned Crab’ hinting at the small yet magical moments you miss when life takes you away from home. The sweetly named ‘Keeping Up With The Grandchildren, Yeah’ follows, and it’s a magical meandering, the percussion keeping a fine pace, driving it all forward.
‘A Forestful of Rogues’ isn’t just a fantastic title; it’s an outstanding track and on initial listens, possibly even the centrepiece of an admittedly strong collective. There’s a wholesome feel throughout the record, but this track, with the ‘if I say so myself, and I damn well do’ line, beams and bursts in a nourishing way.
‘Peter Paulo Van Der Heyden’ is raucous (at least in comparison with the rest), the rattling piano accompanying both singers’ optimistic lilt. Mainly, Persson carries the upbeat graces, but here, both are on the same page. They weave and bob around each other wonderfully, complementing each other handsomely, taking songs to a higher level than if left in the hands of any one singer.
The ragged guitar solo adds to the occasion, and the middle period of the record picks up pace. This is where many albums start to sag, steeling themselves for a big finish, but not on The Great White Sea Eagle.
There’s hardly a wasted moment, let alone a watsed track, with much of this down to the consistent quality of The Second Hand Orchestra. Naturally, so much focus will fall on the vocalists, but the singers will likely be first to admit it’s all possible because of the beautiful folk backing throughout the record.
The relaxed air of ‘Hold Out For Love’ eases into the aching and longing nature of ‘The Harmony’, stirring strings underplaying it all, tugging at your heart. The repeated line ‘And the world became too fast, and if I were a gambling man, I would not trust it by half’ talks of doubt, again perfectly measured by the singers. In a way, they’re actors playing a role, bringing stories and emotions to life, showing us a different world from a character’s viewpoint.
Of course, the most notable story on the album is the title track itself, a spoken word track by Yorkston.
Closer ‘A Hollow Skeleton Lifts A Heavy Wing’ starts on a downbeat tone, but as Persson arrives, the tempo and pressure build. Thankfully, there’s a final flourish for the two, sparring and duelling, but not necessarily against each other, and it’s Yorkston who takes us home, repeating the title line as the embers die out.
Far better writers with a greater understanding of the tales and folk canon will outline how excellent this record is and why. Still, ultimately it’s a lovely album made by quality musicians and singers, which is undoubtedly all that matters.