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Richard Skelton, "Border Ballads"

cover imageEach new Richard Skelton release is a bit of a surprise these days, as his aesthetic is in a permanent state of flux shaped by where he is living and what he is thinking about at any given time. For the most part, his more divergent and experimental forays tend to surface as digital-only releases, but this physical release explores the least expected direction of all: a return to the more melodic, song-based aesthetic of his classic Type LPs from a decade ago. Obviously, Skelton is quite a different artist now than he was back then, so Border Ballads not a return so much as it is a very different vision ("telluric, grounded, earthen") rooted in a semi-familiar structure. Given that Landings and Marking Time were the Skelton albums that I first fell in love with, it is very hard to maintain any semblance of objectivity with this long-delayed sequel (of sorts). It feels like Border Ballads recaptures the transcendent magic of its predecessors only fitfully though, as its deep melancholy feels more like a somber, earthbound elegy than an ecstatic catharsis.

Corbel Stone Press/Aeolian Editions

The circumstances and inspirations behind Border Ballads are atypically simple and straightforward, as Skelton was primarily driven by the "hinterland topography" of a rural stretch of the England-Scotland border.He makes a particular point of mentioning the various watercourses delineating the region, which I found curious, as there is little about these pieces that suggests a spiritual kinship with liquid in any way.Rather, these twelves miniatures evoke the sense of the sun slowly rising over a stark and wintry landscape.There is a pervasive sense of isolation and sadness saturating this entire album that I cannot imagine originating during any other season, yet Skelton apparently worked on this album for two years.Perhaps this is a project that he returned to only during his darker moments though.In any case, the simplicity of the album's inspiration is carried through in the modestness and simplicity of the pieces themselves, as Border Ballads approaches something like neo-classical chamber music.For most other artists, such a structure would not be a conspicuously modest avenue, but recent Richard Skelton fare has more closely resembled shifting tectonic plates or collapsing stars than it has a man playing a haunted viola melody over some minor key piano.Despite that newly human scale, however, Skelton remains more at home with geological time scales that human ones: the melodies of Border Ballads more closely resemble the slow-motion swells of drone music than they do any conventional string ensemble.

While it is admittedly quite a pleasant change of pace to see Skelton returning to melody and songcraft, his melodies were never the primary appeal of his work: the brilliance of those earlier albums lay in their visceral and dazzling execution. I had never heard anyone play a bowed instrument quite like Skelton, as his strings churned, heaved, shivered, and threw off sprays of harmonic sparks as if they were alive.Happily, some shades of that supernatural conjuring return here in pieces like "Altar Valley" and "Spur."That former is especially wonderful, as any obvious traces of structure dissolve as the central theme lazily twists, undulates, and swells.Moreover, both pieces highlight Skelton's singular talent for beautifully carving through ambient languor with sharp tones or vivid clarity at the right moments. I had missed that bite and crackling electricity, so it is a true delight to find it resurfacing on a handful of Border Ballads' highlights.

For the most part, however, Border Ballads feels like a deliberately composed album with melodic structures and chord progressions that do not feel supernaturally alive.There are certainly many fine moments to be found, but that approach does not exactly play to Skelton's strengths.For example, the somber piano arpeggios of pieces like "Kist and Ark" and "Roan" feel like a bit of a regression to me.I suspect part of that is my own issue, as I have a potentially irrational hostility towards pianos.Nevertheless, some instruments are very well-suited for weaving illusions and some are not.For me, pianos fall into the latter category, as I have yet to hear a piano work so brilliant that it makes me forget that I am hearing someone playing a piano (though Arvo Pärt’s "Spiegel in Spiegel" may be an exception).With Richard Skelton albums, I do not want to hear chords and scales–I want to fall under a spell.The prominent presence of minor key piano patterns is like hearing someone who long ago figured out how to forge his own path go back to making music with the same rules and conventions as everyone else.

Thankfully, that statement is likely true only fleetingly, as Skelton is an artist who always seems to have a number of irons in the fire these days.For all I know, there could be another monster Inward Circles album on the horizon that will knock me flat.With Border Ballads, Skelton just felt like composing a suite of moody, comparatively straightforward violin and cello pieces.Some of them are quite good and they amount to a uniformly strong and thematically coherent whole, but this album does not scratch the itch I hoped it would.Alas.On the bright side, Skelton remains an eternal wellspring of gravitas and quiet intensity.Also, his craftsmanship and attention to nuance are focused as ever, as the strings in a pieces like "Fair Shining" moan, shudder, and leave spectral trails in all the right ways.In fact, Skelton is in fine form in virtually every respect, which makes it perplexing that Border Ballads feels like a comparatively minor album.It just has the curious feel of being a (good) soundtrack rather than a stand-alone work.And, in an abstract way, that might be exactly what it is: not a soundtrack to a film or piece of art, but a soundtrack for the landscapes of Skelton's rural borderlands.

Samples can be found here.