By Tom Bolton
It is impossible to ignore the context for James Yorkston’s first album in three years. The time in between has clearly not been easy for him: in 2010 his young daughter became seriously ill and, although two years on her treatment is reported to have been successful, trauma has left its mark on Yorkston’s music. Despite these circumstances he has not responded with a bleak album, nor with a sentimental one. Instead, his songs have emerged strong, complex and mature.
‘Woozy With Cider’, probably Yorkston’s best known song, grabs the attention through being unashamedly ordinary and unadorned, in a way that few musicians attempt. It is hard to think of another singer who could use the line “I think I can be honest in presuming the world is not exactly going to be leaping out of its bed to make me rich / using my songs in adverts” without sounding chippy or pompous. But Yorkston, mixing his soft Fife accent with a powerful voice, makes it sound both funny and genuine. He has the gift of speaking directly to his audience and convincing them that what he has to say is for real. This is why we are willing to follow him down dark, uncertain paths.
I Was a Cat From a Book is named after a dream Yorkston’s daughter had, and the feelings brought about by her illness (although only mentioned directly in one song) are the album’s central theme. There are dark moments on the record for sure, but what makes Yorkston’s songwriting consistently impressive is its honesty.
Top of the list here are the tracks that do not flinch from the grim realities of having a child in hospital. ‘The Fire and the Flame’ is sung in such a quiet voice that the chord-changing squeak of Yorkston’s guitar acoustic strings are the loudest thing on the track. It is almost unbearably direct: “The look in your eyes that says / Why do you let them hurt me so?”, and lays bare the impossible position of a parent forced to let others cause their child pain. This track sits in the middle of the album, next to ‘Sometimes the Act of Giving Love’ a quiet, difficult song, which takes a similarly direct approach. It deals with love and bitter rejection, but the lyrics share the same painful openness: ‘Ridicule, it would have been easier / I could have cut you down like so much dead wood’.
Elsewhere, the mood is at the opposite pole. ‘Border Song’ is a frantic number that seems to combine overlapping time periods and relationships around the conclusion “This is nothing / just a flirt, just a flicker, just a taster / of what is not to come.” It uses the drive of Yorkston’s highly impressive band (double bass, accordion, piano, violin, clarinet, drums) to underscore ecstasy with mania.
The opening track, ‘Catch’, is especially engaging in its tenderness, addressed to an unnamed companion (“How strange we should find peace with one another”). The faintest of backing vocals sets us up for the duetting to come, something new for Yorkston. ‘Kath With Rhodes’ is sung with Kathryn Williams and as advertised has a Rhodes organ part, which is deliciously liquid. It is sun-dappled, beautiful and fairly trippy. ‘Just As Scared’ features Jill O’Sullivan and is sung in harmony throughout, matching the close, claustrophic relationship at the heart of the song: “I don’t have the answers / I’m just here with you.” These are songs that could sit happily on early records, such as the much-loved and recently re-released Moving Up Country.
‘Spanish Ants’ is closest to the barely contained excitement of Yorkston’s last original album, When the Haar Rolls In. A sinister story involving ants and an unfortunate butterfly has a simmering accompaniment from Sarah Scutt’s clarinet, Emma Smith’s violin, and Reuben Taylor’s accordion and threatens at any moment to break into one of the extended wig outs for which the band is renowned at gigs.
‘I Can Take All This’ is the finale that releases all the tension, with Yorkston declaring an end to frivolity and fun in what he describes as “a primal scream of sorts… or as near as I’ll get to one.” Luke Flowers’ motorik drumming powers the noise and the fury, and then it is all over.
I Was a Cat From a Book is something of a mood swing album, less easily characterised than previous Yorkston records, but the layers are there waiting to be unpeeled. There really are very few songwriters working at the moment who can match James Yorkston, for subtlety, for energy, for tunes, for intelligence, and above all for honesty. This is a record with something to say to anyone who cares to listen.