On Tales of Love, War & Death by Hanging
If you are a sucker for a good ballad, as I am, Tales of Love, War & Death by Hanging, the first solo effort by Ray Cooper, is a must-listen. In the collection of ten songs, most written by Cooper, the speakers range from an archer at the Battle of Agincourt (“The Gray Goose Wing”) to a woman who must bury her slain husband-knight alone (“The Border Widow’s Lament”) to a Roundhead fighter in the English Civil War (“The Puritan”). The speaker of “The Highwayman” embodies the chronologically diverse nature of these ballads, as he is in turn the eponymous highwayman, a seaman in the days of the great sailing ships, and a builder on the Boulder (Hoover) Dam; his relating the means of his death in each incarnation, by hanging, drowning, and being buried alive in concrete, is downright unnerving.
Scattered amongst these musical dramatic monologues are some beautiful love songs; “I Kiss the Sky/Jamtland Bridal March,” with its quiet insistence that the singer “breathe and watch and wait for day,” is moving in the extreme. Nestled as they are between their historical counterparts, these songs also seem elegiac and sung by an ‘other.’ One could easily imagine any of the characters from the ballads returning home to sing to a love,
I’ve traveled many roads and I’ve sailed the seven seas
Hear me, darling, hear me, dear
The wonders of the world don’t mean so much to me
As sleeping in your sweet arms again.
Cooper’s voice, deep and husky, is a perfect vehicle for these songs. When he inhabits the character of the Puritan, for example, his voice conveys the fervor of a man of such ingrained religious belief that the listeners too feel that
Jesus was always on our side
The sword of righteousness hung in the sky
We sang a hymn to make the cowards turn
And then we cut them down as they did run
And the Lord’s seen all that I have done.
We too can believe that God was ultimately responsible for giving him the land he earned in lieu of payment for his military service. (For those inclined to read social and/or political commentary into the lyrics, this song–and “The Grey Goose Wing” for that matter–provides a field day.)
The spareness of the instrumentation against which the vocals lie suits pieces such as these, where the story, of necessity, must come to the fore. There is a sense of intimacy and immediacy, with (for the most part) guitar, cello, violin, sometimes mandolin, mandola and harmonium in the sound. Nevertheless, when Cooper’s haunting cello lines carry the melody at intros or bridges, the deep sweeps are simply another voice with another way of telling—singing—the stories.
As aforementioned, this is Ray Cooper’s inaugural solo CD. A gem of both familiarity and strangeness to those conversant with his other incarnation as Chopper from the Oysterband, the CD is like the homecoming of someone you didn’t realize you missed. As Cooper sings,
Now the dark days are over
Darling, believe me, they’re over
Leave them behind
We’ve wandered so long in the shadows at night
Believe me, the dark days are gone.
It seems like we’ve been waiting for this CD for a long time.
Some great moments to listen for:
The moody and driven harmonica at the end of “The Puritan.”
The singing cello “The Dark Days are Over”; the poetic cello at the beginning of “Ye Jacobites by Name.”
Cooper’s voice, with the octave leap in “The Border Widow’s Lament”; or the way it swells on the refrain of “My Compass Points to North”; or the way Cooper climbs down the scale in “The Highwayman.”
The fiddle (played by Patrik Andersson) on “I Kiss the Night/Jamtland Bridal March.”