Songs from the Twilight Zone: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker Stay Up Late on ‘Overnight’
Here’s one for the night owls and insomniacs for whom sleep is too deep a well, and the wakeful midnight hour offers peace, quiet and solitude. Overnight is the perfect antidote for bad dreams in the night, and what better company could you wish for than Josienne Clarke with her lilting vocal, and Ben Walker with his considerate guitar accompaniment when you’re wide awake and restless?
The album is the fourth outing on CD for the leading folk duo, and their first release for new label Rough Trade. It follows on from the sublime, self-directed ‘Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour’, but doesn’t rise to the bait of attempting to ace that previous winning hand. Overnight is less of a departure or development than a reaffirmation of their identity as folk musicians who respect and revere the past, but live completely in the present day.
It’s therefore not at all incongruous to find songs like Dark Turn of Mind by Gillian Welch and Jackson C. Frank’s Milk and Honey sitting cheek by jowl with an ayre by John Dowland. There is also a raft of metropolitan Lachrymae written mostly by Clarke, and two numbers co-composed with Walker. Four hundred years may separate these songs, but the melodic connections, and enduring preoccupations with light and dark are clear enough. Yet it’s in that twilight zone, where distinctions blur, that Clarke and Walker find their richest vein of material.
Josienne Clarke is a songwriter who does not shrink from the exploration of modern anxieties and perturbations of the mind. She is partnered on Overnight by Walker, who carries his guitar like a lighted candle, as if illuminating the way from a judicious distance. Melodically, they skirt the periphery of singaround-folk-blues, tip a Stetson to Americana, and flirt with jazz here and there. There are even cute references to the sophisticated side of hit parade pop in the Bacharach-flavoured The Waning Crescent.
They are, nevertheless, musicians who dig very deeply into the oldest English folk forms and come up with some fulfilling fare as a result. Nine Times Along, a Clarke original, eases the listener into a place of reflection, while solitude beckons on Sweet the Sorrow, and painful reminders are explored in Something Familiar. The latter song contains some of Clarke’s most revealing verses, as if to answer the critics’ bewildering commentary on the melancholic nature of her musings.
“I wouldn’t say I was lonely, but I know we’re alone, and my mind clings to memory, like a heart to a home.”She sings, and she sums up that sentiment with, “Reflections at sundown, can make me so sad, for there’s no way of keeping, the day we’ve just had.”
It seems incredibly churlish of music writers (who really should know better) to deny the long, long tradition of sorrowful song in just about every mode of popular ballad, while all the while carping about Clarke and Walker’s use of sadness as a point of reference. Somewhere along the line they simply forgot that the universal songbook is crammed with misery from ‘Good Morning Heartache’ to ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and ‘Nothing Compares To You’.
The crepuscular settings for the mood-altering songs on Overnight ought to be a clue that they dwell on the pull of the emotions, and are designed to soothe the worried brow, rather than torment it further. Songs such as dreamily cloistered Dawn of the Dark(co-written with Walker) and the pentangular The Light of His Lamp ask for quiet attention, and invite close scrutiny from a listening audience. The reward is finely-wrought melody, beautifully sung by an artist whose gift grows exponentially with every collection of new songs.
The inclusion of Dowland’sWeep No More You Sad Fountains is more than a mere tribute. It is an acknowledgement of a great artistic tradition that Clarke and Walker are almost uniquely placed to carry into the light of day. Stripped of affectation, it is soul music in one of its earliest incarnations, and remains visceral for those who seek sanctuary from daily persecution of their ears by the ubiquitous phenomenon of un-music.
Josienne Clarke always was a confident singer and songwriter, but now she is so assured in her craft that she need ask no leave of anyone what pallete, colour or materials to use. The synergy that she enjoys with Ben Walker as a guitar player, arranger, co-writer, collaborator and friend is stamped by fierce equality. It ensures that her voice is free to fly in any direction she chooses, whether it is a tender reading of Ivor Gurney’s lyric on Sleep, or towards personal enlightenment on the final track The Light of Day. The latter song was co-written with Walker and the two morph into one on a song that contains Clarke’s most satisfying lyric to date.