On his fifth album proper, and first in four years, Edinburgh-based folkie and former Fence Collective member James Yorkston broadens his musical palate, although in such a subtle way that you might not notice at first listen. There is still the hushed, understated delivery of the Nick Drake/Elliott Smith-like insistent, finger-picked guitar and the vocals that sound falsetto but is actually his natural voice, often coloured by minimalist string an/or woodwind arrangements. The difference here is in the pacing and sequencing. Opener ‘Catch’, a bittersweet recollection of youth is vintage Yorkston, with rippling piano flourishes, lulling faithful listeners into what used to be called a false sense of security.
Then ‘Kath With Rhodes’ is dreamy electronica, while ‘Just As Scared’ is positively skittish, jazzy syncopation, with Yorkston trading clever overlapping lines in a duet with Jill O’Sullivan. On the other hand, ‘Border Song’ and closer ‘I Can Take All This’ are utterly frantic, the former evincing an urgency in its headlong rush that we’ve rarely heard from Yorkston previously, the latter a defiant folk-punk rebuke to an unnamed deity. Meanwhile, ‘This Line Says’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Two’, are downright sinister.
Doubtlessly, some of this broadening of palate and fluctuation in style(s) can be attributed to the absence of some members of Yorkston’s regular band, The Athletes, through illness or falling-outs, and the addition of several new players and other contributors. It’s looser than before, as though Yorkston gave the musicians freer rein. But there is also the fact that much of the album was written about and recorded under adverse personal circumstances. A couple of years ago, Yorkston’s young daughter became seriously ill. On I Was a Cat from a Book (a phrase he apparently got from his little girl) he vents his feelings about this situation, and the accompanying sense of helplessness. Thus, ‘The Fire and The Flames’, a somber meditation on a parent shielding their child from the incomprehensible, is the nub of the album, Yorkston’s voice akin to Thom Yorke’s in its ethereal intensity. Similarly, ‘A Short Blues’ is a simple lament, devastating in its directness.
Although not a fundamental departure for Yorkston, I Was a Cat from a Book in its satisfying wholeness does enough to challenge old fans and hopefully attract some new ones as well.