We loved Nat Bartsch‘s Hope, the life-affirming 2021 album on which Hope Renewed is based, so it’s wonderful to see that the Australian pianist and composer’s optimism is undimmed. Hope was dominated by the piano and that remains true of Hope Renewed, but here Bartsch draws on her roots as an jazz ensemble leader and, with the help of a group of musicians, transforms eight of the original tracks into expansive arrangements that reveal the breadth of her interests and skills. At times the album is closer to post-rock, at others closer to jazz. As she says in a preview video, Hope Renewed is “an experiment in how it feels to show all the musical sides of me in one place”.
That’s an illuminating comment because looking back at Bartsch’s recent career, we can’t help feeling that this is an artist who has really understood the power of Shakespeare’s words “to thine own self be true”. Bartsch is many things and in the last few years she’s explored the many facets of her personality in a variety of ways. Her gorgeous 2018 album of lullabys Forever, and No Time At All was written whilst nurturing her own child but the considerable acclaim with which it was met showed that the album met not only a personal need but a wider one, with parents all over the world turning to her music for comfort and relief. An album of jazz reworks titled Forever More earned her award nominations. She also contributed a powerful chapter on her experience as a neurodivergent parent to a book called We’ve Got This: Stories By Disabled Parents. The original Hope was a deeply felt response to the fear caused by both the pandemic and the Australian bushfires: Bartsch clearly felt that people needed hope and the acclaim and award-nominations show that she’s been successful in delivering it.
“Brightness in the Hills” is the optimistic-sounding title of the second track but, given the bushfire context in which the album was written, that brightness might in fact be a sign of an approaching threat. Certainly that was the thought behind the album opener and lead single “For the Koalas”, which opens with a piano melody filled with a quiet and melancholy dignity, a tribute to the flora and fauna lost to the fire, but as the other instruments join you sense the landscape rejuvenating. Meanwhile “Brightness in the Hills” exudes calm, soothing us and reassuring us that we shouldn’t lose hope.
In the original version of “Fight not flight” Bartsch’s piano reverberated with the voices of birds; now we hear the guitar, saxophone and strings take up their song. The title track was originally written for string quartet and piano, but in Hope Renewed the piano is first joined by ambient effects and guitar, then the strings and faint drums: in this “Hope”, Bartsch seems even more open and assured. All in all, Hope Renewed is a reinvigoration, a restatement of purpose by a gifted musician whose justified confidence is matched by her skill. (Garreth Brooke)