Shirley Collins’ new EP begins with the octogenarian folk singer reciting a short stanza of a poem, her only accompaniment a flock of birds and the gentle brush of a breeze. “One morning in the month of May, when all the birds were singing,” she says, bending the rhythm of the words slightly upward, as though posing a question to the listener. “I saw a lovely lady stray across the fields at break of day and softly sang a roundelay.” It’s a short, simple musing on the motivation to make art and the passage of time—which is fitting because Collins has been singing a version of this song her entire life. The new track is called “Across the Field,” but Collins has long known it as “Just as the Tide Was a’ Turning.” She learned it from her aunt and recorded it first in 1959, then again in 1967 with her sister Dolly Collins. In 1971 she recorded it once more with the Albion Country Band, a loose collective of English folk musicians including members of Fairport Convention and the Young Tradition.
50 years later, Collins has traded those human collaborators for birds, and their chirping lends the music a peculiar intimacy, as though you’re overhearing her praying in her garden. “The tide flows in, the tide flows out,” she says, “twice returning everyday.” As with many of the best moments in her unruly catalog, the song is lovely because it is so fleeting, so quiet, so undramatic. Even during her heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she was recording albums with famed producer Joe Boyd and releasing them on Harvest Records (then home to Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, among others), Collins shunned the spotlight and always insisted she was merely a conduit for the legions of unnamed English folks who collectively wrote the songs she sang.
Crowlink, like the two comeback albums that preceded it, reveals an artist who strikes beautiful and impossible balances: She makes public songs sound private; she makes the past feel very present; she honors history by pushing it forward. Released last year, Heart’s Ease ended with a thunderstorm, a windblown drone of harmonium and hurdy-gurdy, and the serene chirping of birds. It sounded as though the old songs she had been singing had returned to the elements that inspired them, and Crowlink acts as an exclamation point to that idea. The EP picks up in the same place, musically and geographically, using those same elements and extending them further. The sounds reappear throughout these five new tracks, assembled from field recordings made by Matthew Shaw at Crowlink in Sussex, as well as nearby Etchingham and Firie Church.
Collins doesn’t sing on the second track, the meditative instrumental “At Break of Day,” which foregrounds birdsong against the ebb and flow of new age synths. She’s a presence regardless, her imagery resonating throughout the notes as Shaw explores these natural and synthetic textures. Together, “Across the Field” and “At Break of Day” make for an immersive introduction to this EP, which finishes with three traditional songs, sung tenderly and calmly, with a quiet resolve. Collins delivers “My Sailor Boy” as if looking back on a long-ago tragedy—an impression bolstered by the noise like crashing waves around her. Similarly, the closing “The Briar and the Rose” is less about any specific event of loss or betrayal than how those shocks reverberate through time—in this case, a rose and a briar growing from the graves of thwarted lovers. They’re old songs made from scraps of even older ones—including references of “Barbara Allen,” perhaps the closest Collins has to a signature tune—but Collins continues to find new meanings within them and therefore new ways to sing them. So the old hymn “Through All Eternity” becomes akin to a promise to find something that persists beyond the tides: “Throughout all eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,” she exclaims, speaking not for herself but for the songs themselves.
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