For many of us, the predicament of lockdown and isolation has made way for new creative exploits, be it in the rekindling of old hobbies or the birth of fresh projects. With time and space to reflect, Falkirk polymath Adam Stafford’s experience of lockdown has been one of renewal, revolving around the discovery of a little red book hidden beneath some tupperware in a cardboard box.
Full of old lyrics and memories, this book was a snapshot of a past life, providing an opportunity for reassessment, wholly embraced by Stafford as the world collectively paused to take a breath. Armed with a box full of demo cassette tapes, he decided to re-learn some songs, take fragmented ideas from the past ten years and chop, re-write and re-sculpt until an entirely new album was born. As he explains, ‘I decided to revisit and refurbish them, like a detective looking over an old case.’
Diamonds of a Horse Famine is the result, and in nine songs, Stafford cements his reputation as one of Scotland’s finest arrangers of cinematic soundscapes, tied together, as ever, with versatile instrumentation and cathartic, affecting vocals. ‘People complained that I'd stopped singing when they came to see me live,’ he says of his choice to place his voice front and centre, ‘so this was an opportunity to flex the vocal muscles again and say, "Hiya, remember when I used to write lyrics and songs?". I recorded piecemeal for two hours each morning and did vocal takes in my shed at night.’
‘Thirty Years of Bad Road’ opens the album with a lilting guitar line that swings back and forth in unison with Stafford’s delicate vocal melody, the repetition driving its themes of addiction and inertia. Embodying his honest portrayal of mental illness, ‘Erotic Thistle’ also appeals to his dark sense of humour, with the track’s lyrical ingenuity working in sync with its explicit emotion.
This new record is ultimately a step towards nostalgia; the unearthing of forgotten stories and past mistakes told from differing perspectives, its focus on introspection certifying it as the quintessential lockdown soundtrack. ‘It was an attempt,’ Stafford continues, ‘to strip all of the artifice and return to just voice and minimal instrumentation a la Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Sparklehorse's Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, Cody Chesnutt’s The Headphone Masterpiece and Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack.’
‘History of Longest Days’ casts fond memories on existing in perpetual poverty but still being happy, while ‘Summer on Elm Wood’ follows a suicidal child, living next to a wasteland that contains a derelict, haunted factory. A tribute to Skip James' ‘Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues’, ‘Calf and Cow Blues’ paints a vivid picture of a disquiet rural setting with cows crying across the fields waiting to be milked in the morning.
Elsewhere on the album, ‘Slave’ suffers the pain of toxic, controlling relationships; ‘House is a Hospice’ takes an unflinching look at prostitution and poverty; and ‘What Kind of Man’ explores ageing and loss of sex appeal – the restraint in all three exhibiting a depth and darkness that stirs your soul.
If lockdown truly has given us all a rare moment of reflection in our otherwise chaotic lives, Diamonds of a Horse Famine can be seen as the epitome of retrospection as progress and of creative rebirth. For many of us, this period has been fruitful yet humdrum, noteworthy yet simultaneously monotonous; time seeming to stand still yet disappear just as quickly. Perhaps we’ve all been longing to find our very own little red book hidden beneath some tupperware in a cardboard box.
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Find a quiet spot, sit down, put on the headphones, and don't do anything else but listen to this album. Symptoms will include shivers, a rush of intense emotions, and the desire to see Kathryn Joseph live. No, YOU'RE weeping into your coffee, transfixed by this beautiful, heartrending music. Saint Aardvark