Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fairport Convention: The Deserter (1969)

Once or twice a year - always in the autumn, usually around Samhain - I go back to my old Fairport Convention albums.  I have the three they did with Sandy Denny in 1969, which I find so heart-thumpingly transporting that I've never been able to bring myself to explore the band or the singer any farther.  Nothing else could possibly compare.

Of the three, I agree that Liege & Lief is the best of them.  (However you wouldn't want to live without "A Sailor's Life" from Unhalfbricking or "She Moves Through The Fair" from What We Did On Our Holidays.  You need them all.)

What I can never decide is which song on L&L is best.  It's one of those records:  each song on it has its day, from the pagan invocation of "Come All Ye," which convinces you that, with a little help from Sandy, you could indeed "raise the spirits of the earth / and move the rolling sky," to the appropriately murderous guitar-fiddle wild ride that ends "Matty Groves," to the incantatory canter at which they take "Tam Lin."

But lately it always seems to be "The Deserter" that gets me deepest.  It's the lament of a poor man caught up in the hellish samsara of the draft, a plaint that says man should not have to kill his fellow man and any regime that makes it so perverts humanity, an an observation that it's the way of the universe that mercy and cruelty so often alternate, one leading to the other.  The arrangement and musicians' work provide a perfect setting for this argument, delivering us a world of cyclical recurrence that nevertheless keeps building the tension with each iteration.  Tension and release, tension and release, just like the narrator's alternating bondage and escape;  tension is a mad sawing at the fiddle, release a gentle striding into rhythm.  But of course it's Sandy Denny's vocal that really drives the arrow home:  her cold sensuality, an icicle dripping grief and pain yet catching in its prism the very sun that destroys it.  Her voice is just otherworldly.

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