Sam Lee Songdreaming Review: Folk-art evangelist sinks into the green, green grass of home

Folk singer Sam Lee pens rich, evergreen ode to nature on fourth LP, songdreaming

Sam Lee

by Jim Wirth |
Published on

Sam Lee




“WE DON’T have the tools with which to relate to nature any more,” Sam Lee tells MOJO as he tries to explain the thought behind his Bernard Butler-produced fourth LP. “I’m a guide in that sense and music is my sort of Pan pipe, trying to bring people over into a new way of feeling towards what loving nature can be.” Momentarily, he catches himself and pauses. “I’m worried this is all sounding like total bullshit.”

If you want an excuse to stop reading, it’s worth noting that songdreaming (note: self-conscious lower-case ‘s’) is a collection of new songs full of bits recycled from traditional material, suffused with gaunt [Astral Weeks]{href='' } jazz vibes performed by a north Londoner who – for one of his many side hustles – brings people out to the fields at night so they can watch him sing with nightingales.

The 43-year-old’s unashamedly florid lyrical style may – for some – bring back harrowing memories of studying the romantic poets (as he rectorates nobly on the luscious McCrimmon: “Where England’s mist lifts from her greening, a curlew croons in delight of this revealing”). Painfully earnest, songdreaming is in essence a record about country walks and the mystical power of landscape suffused with a deep belief that music might begin the process of healing the planet at a time of ecological apocalypse. If it had been released in 1989, there’s a strong possibility that it would have featured Nigel Kennedy.

However, if there are any number of reasons to be sniffy about songdreaming, there is one killer argument in its favour: it’s great. An autumn-toned tour de force, it melds yoga pants-era Bill Callahan pondering, the twittering rhapsodies of Kate Bush’s Aerial and Incredible String Band cosmic wonder. It’s an exploded Liege & Lief fronted by Ben Fogle. Don’t pretend you’re not curious. Hipped to the majesty of the wild places by a spell in forest school as a child, Lee briefly studied at Chelsea College of Art but quit to become a Ray Mears-trained wilder ness survival expert. Making the leap from conserving nature to preserving music, he spent time recording the songs of the British traveller community before becoming a recording artist himself: his 2012 debut Ground Of Its Own scoring the ‘token folkie’ Mercury Prize nomination.

Things got more interesting as he upped the baroque inflexions to the old songs on 2015’s The Fade In Time and 2020’s rapturously received Old Wow, but with songdreaming he has taken a step into more personal terrain, acknowledging that to tell the story he wants to tell, he has to use at least a few more words of his own. Typically, opener Bushes And Briars has the title and some of the skeleton of a traditional song (Roud 1027 if you want to check), but Lee’s herald of a planetary “reckoning divine” is very much his own. Over an ominous cloud of looming, Richard Thompson-style minor chords, brush drums and piercing violin, he sets out his worst fears (in what seems like an Old Testament Bert Jansch voice). “Sometimes I am uneasy and troubled in my mind,” he sings. “Sometimes I think we’ve gone too far to turn it round in time.”

However, if dark, globally-war med skies hover over songdreaming, it’s a record about beauty, Lee doing his best ‘heaven in a wildflower ’ bit as he talks about the magic of getting out into the country on Meeting Is A Pleasant Place (a mutant version of Courting Is A Pleasure). “Measure England’s mile with me old friend,” Lee sings to what seems to be a hiking companion. “Our walk is our release.”

McCrimmon hammers the point home, Lee draping a homage to the great green yonder over what might be a rewilded Nick Drake’s Cello Song. “In awe,” he sings in churchy rapture. “In awe, in awe forever.” Green Mossy Banks weaves Irish pipes and what sounds like Old Testament prophecy into a serene reflection on the wonders of pilgrimage: getting out there, surrendering to old pathways. It’s suffused with fear for the future and despair on behalf of the generations who will inherit a smogged-up planet, but then from nowhere, Lee suddenly chimes in with a sweetly plummy version of American spiritual Bright Morning Stars. It should be appallingly cloying, but – thanks perhaps to the righteous Kibbo Kift certainty in his voice – it’s quite over whelming. songdreaming is by no means perfect; Lee’s version of Black Dog And Sheep Crook comes on a little too much like Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, and his Anglicisation of Robert Burns ballad Aye Walking Ohfeels a bit unnecessary. However, Lee does unaffected loveliness very well (case in point: the closing Sweet Girl McRee), and his intense empathy – for the bees, the trees, the birdies and his fellow man – shines through.

Dreams Of The Returning may provide songdreaming’s central thrust. As a garbled version of This Mortal Coil’s Song To The Siren implodes around him, Lee telescopes again from micro into macro, his personal relationship with nature (“I was never good at geography,” he confesses) steering him to a meditation on the age-old power that he hopes will continue to bring enlightened people back to the land. As he puts it: “To your source stay true.”

Of course, songdreaming rests on messing with the source code. It’s way too rich in jazz textures and vocal techniques gleaned from world music to pass as a trad folk record. However, if it acknowledges that the wisdom of our ancients can only go so far in solving very modern problems, Lee stands firmly by his conviction that salvation may come in re-forging that primal connection to the ground beneath our feet. If Lankum’s blood’n’guts False Lankum chimed with the horrors and cynicism of 2023, then perhaps the mystic idealism of songdreaming offers hope of something more constructive to come.

“Be peregrine, be pasture, be tiny, be vaster,” Lee sings, giving a boutique pep talk at the end of Green Mossy Banks. “Be as soft as green moss and be free.” Pan’s pipe is calling. Be brave and follow.

songdreaming is out now on Cooking Vinyl.

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