A change of pace for Richard Skelton, Border Ballads contains some of the clearest melodies of the composer’s career. Piano, viola and cello each make stunning appearances, no longer mulched but pristine, representing a new clarity of mind and purpose. These twelve “miniatures” stand in contrast to the EP-length pieces for which Skelton has become known.
The world itself searches for clarity. Lines have been drawn, but not the lines suggested by the earth, or even by our human ancestors. In 2019, the word “border” has negative connotations. Our first thoughts are not of the borders between various types of flora or the dignity of crumbling stone, but of politics. The noise is enough to cause a secondary wave of blurriness, as the bad seems to outweigh the good, pessimism seems more realistic than optimism, and we wonder if we can ever recover who and what we once were.
Skelton is not immune to such cacophony, given his current home on the border between Scotland and England. If his ballads are inspired by the local watercourses that provide helpful demarcation, they are also informed by the sight of arbitrary territories, the realization that the same plants grow on each side, and the question of why we argue over what nature has generously provided to all. The genre term border ballads refers to “songs of love, death and conflict,” although the tone of the album is more elegiac than confrontational.
Hearing “Kist and Ark” is like waking up from a dream. The dark river seems no longer muddy. The water runs clear, and the lilies blossom. Ophelia rises from her suicidal trance, shakes herself off, and re-plants the flowers from her hair. By using the piano, Skelton seems to be saying, focus. Concentrate on what is pure and true. The same effect occurs when one set of strings emerges from the morass to take the foreground on “Fair Shining,” the album’s longest piece. When the piano returns on “Roan,” one thinks of threads of white on a chestnut mare, or a single voice of reason in a teeming crowd.
As the album progresses, one begins to experience the music as opposing forces establishing a fragile peace. Earthly worries are balanced by the consolation of landscapes, the false certainty of politics by the deep mystery of rocks and rills. Skelton gazes across the River Esk at his former home, noting that the water touches both banks. In the same way, the wind respects no borders, but sings its own ballad, carrying our words away in a divine gale of its own. (Richard Allen)