The album may have been born in pain, but the music lands firmly on joy, reflecting the old nursery rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy.” Two for Joy is also the second album for Bristol quartet Eleven Magpies, but their self-titled release was pretty upbeat as well. This may be the default mood for songwriter Ian Ross, but he was shaken from this perch by COVID-19 and the death of his mother. Music provided a way home.
Patient opener “Breath” serves as a summary of the past few years: patients fighting for breath, a victim gasping, “I can’t breathe,” the admonition to “just breathe.” The instrumentalists arrive slowly, as if pulling up to a wake. The sustained note in the closing minute is like a flatline. But from here, the quartet launches jauntily into the title track, a sneak preview of joy to come in this world and the next. The time between loss and re-emergence was longer than this, but the album has perspective that the individual tracks do not. As the song travels up the scales, the heart soars.
The music sounds like companionship, suffused with warmth. “Be Unusual” is a standout cut, honoring its title with a percussive attack followed by a playful call-and-response. It’s clear that being with other people is good for recovery. This being said, Two for Joy is not an album to play for people in mourning; to quote Proverbs, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.’ Even the most pensive piece, “In the Shade of a Castle,” is too happy for such a situation. Instead, the album personifies how far one might come from a starting point of sorrow. The composer mentions family, friends and biscuits (cookies), an earthly Holy Trinity. By the time the album reaches its ebullient finale, “Murmuration,” it has spread word of a physical and spiritual spring: companions moving as one, creating new shapes: partners in a dance, like that between death and life, grief and acceptance, sorrow and joy. (Richard Allen)