The renaissance of Shirley Collins continues, and it’s very welcome. Archangel Hill is her third full-length release since her 2016 return, and each one has seemed better than the last. This time around the production is fuller, with a sound that does full justice to her voice (kudos to the musicians, especially Ian Kearey). Her voice is not the instrument of her young days, of course; that would be too much to expect. She's 87 now, and she had decades away from singing.
But now her singing carries the weight of experience on pieces like “Hares On The Mountain” – her third time recording it, and this version is magnificent, full of a knowledgeable beauty. She gives us a chance to compare the current Collins with the 1980 version of “Hand And Heart,” a live recording from an Australian tour, accompanied by harpsichord, in an arrangement by her sister, Dolly. Both are majestic in their different ways. Her voice always had an unstudied, untrained simplicity and honesty; an innocence, if you will. That feeling remains, but these days it’s a wonderfully weathered instrument, natural and affecting in its artlessness.
The past inevitably weighs heavily on traditional singers, but on Archangel Hill it seems as if she’s gathering together strands from her history and weaving them into a lovely tapestry. “High And Away” has lyrics from band member Pip Barnes that reference Collins’s 1959 Appalachian song collecting trip with Alan Lomax – who’s also there behind “Bonny Labouring Boy,” a song he encouraged her to sing at the dawn on her career. Add to that an instrumental called “June Apple” that she heard in Galax, Virginia, in 1959, and the American link is complete.
Collins’ father provides the words for the title track in a poem he wrote about a place close to him – and to her, as she still lives close by – while her Uncle Fred gave the lyrics for the moving “Hand And Heart.” These, along with a carol by the wife of writer G.K. Chesterton, set to an arrangement of the traditional “Sweet England” by Vaughan Williams (who collected “Fare Thee Well, My Dearest Dear,” the album’s opening cut), are threaded between the wrap and weft of the tradition, her own past becoming one with the music.
Maybe she has plans for another album. She’s one of the greats of English folk music, a beacon for the tradition that was relit. But even if this is a swansong, Archangel Hill is a gorgeous way to go.