“An album that reminds us of what a potent force the singer-songwriter can be”
Whatever happened to real singer-songwriters? That is to say the kind of artist that raged against society’s ills in one song, and sung tenderly or bitterly of lost love in the next. Today’s insipid equivalent tends to be stuck in a perpetual adolescence, imparting solipsistic lyrics that have no more depth than their tweets. But then there’s Sarah Gillespie. Wishbones is her fourth album in just under a decade and what a gem it is. It’s so brimming over with memorable characters and imagery, so alive with her characteristic wit, savvy and sensitivity, that it leaves the afterglow of a great short story collection as much as an album of songs.
The jaunty Costello-esque "The Last of the Goodtime Charlies" centres on a blinkered Brexiter living on rose-tinted memories of his homeland. Later on the record, Gillespie juxtaposes his anachronistic absurdity with the kind of tragedy that occurs when such views become acceptable: "The Theft of Marco Munoz" is the true story of a Honduran man who committed suicide after being separated from his family at the US boarder.
Gillespie is equally penetrating when she hones in on her own life for inspiration. "Suzanna Threw a Helicopter" was inspired by mundane daily reports from the nursery on her daughter's escapades, and it chills even as it amuses. Mini-kingdoms are conjured by these children from the everyday objects around them – a tractor, biscuits and Play-Doh get used to mark out territory and stake claims. Blood is mentioned at one point but not drawn. The death of innocence is already in progress.
But if you think that this all suggests a melancholy, subdued album you couldn’t be more mistaken. Gillespie’s band are on fire, and the woman's gift for conjuring an ecstatic soaring chorus never more in evidence. Mercury Prize nominated Kit Downs contributes some atmospheric organ and piano, but also does a great job on production by simply capturing the physicality, dynamism and swing of the music (as was confirmed by a great live show at the Purcell Room a fortnight ago).
Gillespie expresses outrage at our fracturing world while simultaneously summoning compassion for the individuals struggling to stay afloat in it. We need to go back to the 1960s and 70s – the golden age of the singer-songwriter – to find artists of comparable potency and conviction scaling similar heights. Without a doubt my album of the year.