15 May 2018
Album review – If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. “A consummate artistic triumph that marks a new phase in McQuaid’s career.”
Sarah McQuaid – If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous
Shovel and a Spade Records – Out Now
First up, I have to extend apologies for a somewhat belated review and confess that, initially, I wasn’t won over by Sarah McQuaid’s latest album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. However, I kept going back and listening again and came to realise I was judging it on what I expected to hear following her previous releases rather than what it actually was. Once I’d cast preconceptions aside, it became apparent that this, her fifth release, is, in fact, a mature and hugely confident musical and stylistic progression that deserves to be applauded as such.
Working with the legendary Michael Chapman, who produced and plays his 1961 Gibson on several tracks, and whose influence shimmers throughout, it opens with the sinewy moody title track, Chapman also playing archtop slide, Roger Luxton on hand percussion and Richard Evans on trumpet for a metaphorical warning about the potentially apocalyptic dangers of fracking that had its origins in her son excavating a hole in the back garden, but also one that can be extended psychologically to not disturbing things best left alone.
Bringing in Samuel Hollis on upright bass behind McQuaid’s guitar and keyboards, Slow Decay has a feel akin to Joni Mitchell’s Hissing Of Summer Lawns or Hejira, the lyric, playing on the different meanings of decay, a meditation on mortality and the infinite. By contrast, One Sparrow Down draws heavily on Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, the vocal set against a tribal percussive arrangement by Robert Luxton entailing radiator, cooker grill and wine bottle and a somewhat unsettling image of a cat watching a bird (and featuring sampled ‘guest’ vocals from Nightingale the cat and Bob the pheasant) that clearly has an underlying predatory context.
A stark piano ballad accompanied by upright bass, The Silence Above Us echoes the apocalyptic tone elsewhere and is pointedly followed by a cover of Forever Autumn, best known from Justin Hayward’s War of the Worlds version though originally recorded by Vigrass and Osborne in 1972, stripped back to a far sparser arrangement of acoustic guitar and Joe Pritchard’s cello. The first part of a musical triptych, the instrumental intro is actually taken from the opening line of Dies Irae, a medieval Gregorian chant, which, sustaining the melancholic mood, dutifully follows, sung in Latin again featuring Pritchard and with Chapman on guitars. The latter also contributes to the following two tracks, the wholly instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day (a literal translation of the former’s opening line) with its rumbles and feedback, McQuaid playing Ibanez electric guitar with a delay pedal.
Featuring Evans on trumpet, Georgia Ellery on fiddle and McQuaid channelling Sandy Denny, Cot Valley is a traditional flavoured number about child labour inspired by the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act which prohibited children under the age of ten from working underground, legislation which had a profound impact on the Cornish tin and copper mines where some 20% of the workforce were children.
Shifting from the darker tones, New Beginnings strikes a more celebratory note, a simple guitar piece written for the wedding of Zoe Pollock, the 1991 Sunshine On A Rainy Day hitmaker with whom she formed the folk duo Mama.
The album heads towards its conclusion with Time To Love, an email co-write with Gerry O’Beirne, the Irish producer of her first three albums, a song that echoes the sentiments of John Rowles’ 1968 Top 3 hit If I Only Had Time and features double tracked violin and cello.
Chapman’s final appearance comes with Break Me Down, a paradoxically upbeat decomposition about death in which she asks, to donate her organs and for her body to be buried au-naturel, sans coffin, in a return to the earth as she amusingly sings “I’ve got some prime organic matter on me/Shame to let it spoil.”
The album ends with just her voice and solo electric guitar on The Tug of the Moon, a slow waltz number that uses the moon’s gravitational pull and the gradual slowing of the Earth’s rotation to again treat on mortality and eventual endless night, but with a calm sense of acceptance of the natural cosmic cycle rather than any sense of dread. A consummate artistic triumph that marks a new phase in McQuaid’s career, I regret that it took so long for me to appreciate the depth and textures to the writing and performances contained within. Don’t make the same mistake.