The debut album from Harp, former Midlake singer Tim Smith’s new act, bears a healthy imprint of Anglophilia. The album title reflects his fascination with England, or Albion as it was known in former times, especially the Medieval and Renaissance eras, together with its landscapes, gardens, villages, grey skies and mist on the moors. Musically, it echoes his recent immersion in some of the leading melancholy 1980s British bands (Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, Smiths, Tears For Fears and, especially, The Cure’s ‘Faith’) alongside the US classic rock and British folk rock that was the bedrock of Midlake’s sound.

‘Harp’ opens with the pastoral ‘The Pleasant Grey’, one of two brief instrumentals among its twelve tracks, which has a restrained sweep, its guitars an unlikely concoction of folk and goth, flutes flying overhead, filing it with deep emotionality. ‘I Am The Seed’, a song about creativity and helplessness, sees Smith’s voice simultaneously a comforting blanket and an exhibition of self-doubt, the guitars sounding like the Cure transformed into a 70 folk-rock band.

‘A Fountain’ about being paralysed by unrequited love before being rescued by a superior love with a different person, references his wife and partner in Harp, Kathi Zung, who programmed the album’s drums. Its concluding line (“With the loneliest years behind me the world is right”) is indicative of the optimism that emerges. The first of the album’s semi-title tracks, the soft country rock of ‘Daughters of Albion’ yearns for truth and beauty, beginning with Smith lamenting “I don’t understand this dark and empty age” and was inspired by William Blake’s epic poem, ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’. Ironically, one of the shortest songs, ‘Chrystals’, sees Smith proclaim, “I am not through, I am immortal” and is especially lovely.

‘Country Cathedral Drive’, is another title providing hints of Smith’s vision of Albion, together with the refrain “Valiant and true are the sons / but brighter are the daughters of Albion”. There is a conflict between the song’s somnambulant air of benign weariness, reluctantly wiping the sleep from its eyes in the early afternoon, with its celebration of rushing waters and mountains. Armed with a weapon as daunting as Smith’s rich croon, it would have tempting to bury the music underneath it but ‘Shining Spires’ is an example of the emotional nature of the song being heightened by giving the music equal credence in the mix.

‘Silver Wings’ is one of the album’s most stirring moments, the combination of gorgeous guitars, soaring synths and the epic sweep of Smith’s voice at odds with the conflicting emotions expressed. ‘Seven Long Suns’ is bittersweet, reflecting on meeting Zung in their 40s and thinking about the limited time they have together. The lyrics are constructed in the style of a folk poem (“Clever and bright is she / And worthy of more than I”), the song has a gentle folk-rock air although a synth part conjures green fields.

‘Throne of Albion’, another song inspired by Smith’s reading, this time Roger Zelazny’s fantastical novel series ‘The Great Book of Amber’, is about struggling through hard times with him requesting an axe, a spade, a winding sheet for his grave. Musically, it contains the album’s most prominent drums and darkest guitar patterns.

The final track ‘Herstmonceux’, named after a medieval castle in East Sussex, begins with a blast of evensong before Smith fears the earth crumbling and seeks truth, a benevolent tongue and desire as synths conjure bleakness. With appropriate circularity, as sorrow flees, the final line has Smith singing. “I am the seed”.

As the last great album of 2023, it is appropriate that ‘Albion’ is like unwrapping an intricate Christmas present, peeling away layers to find great beauty.

Harp: Albion – Out 1st December 2023 (Bella Union)

– I Am The Seed (Official Video) – YouTube

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.