Bill Pritchard Sings Poems by Patrick Woodcock
From John Betjeman to Simon Armitage, there have been poets who have felt the desire, with varying degrees of success, to put their work to popular(ish) music. Among the curios and novelties, there are a handful of truly exceptional recordings. And this album, a meeting of Canadian poet Patrick Woodcock and British singer-songwriter Bill Pritchard, is one of those.
Unlike those aforementioned laureate types though, Woodcock has (mostly), handed over the vocal duties to Pritchard for this record. Apparently, what began with Woodcock suggesting that Pritchard interpret just one poem, turned into eleven poems - an entire album worth.
Woodcock explained why he approached Pritchard:
"The poems that inspired this album were written in 10 counties where I either worked or volunteered. I introduced my friends, colleagues, and students to the music of Bill Pritchard. For over three decades Bill's music had been part of this migrant writer's life.'
From the start of 'Bill Pritchard Sings Poems by Patrick Woodcock', it's clear how well this alliance has worked. Album opener 'The Lowering' is a fine example - on the surface, it's a straightforward acoustic pop-folk song, but beyond its melodic charm, is a deeply moving narrative. The setting is 'Above the city and the ocean' in Iceland where the writer is on a super jeep trek and describing the gadgetry there to save the vehicle if it ever ran into trouble. Then the truth, that Woodcock is comparing all of this help and protection with the lack of 'safety nets' his mother had when she was battling cancer, becomes apparent, and how helpless the writer felt. It's a stark comparison.
From his earliest albums ('The Death of Bill Posters' compilation and the Etienne Daho produced 'Three Months, Three Weeks and Two Days' in 1987 and 89 ) up to his most recent 'Midland Lullabies' in 2019, Pritchard has created many finely detailed characters. His lyrics are literate and evocative and it's no shock that he treats Woodcock's words with a similar respect. When he sings of '...the private bar in Sarajevo' (on 'Private Bar') you're picturing the scene and somehow you've met the inhabitants with their 'disposable egos'. It's a place where you could believe, ruefully, that 'Dime store will outlive poetry' - one of my favourite lines on this record.
As mentioned above, much of Woodcock's poetry is drawn from his journeys across the globe, his forthcoming collection 'Farhang: Book 1' begins in Poland in 1994 and ends in the hamlet of Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories in 2022. One of the most fascinating and precarious is the windy city of Baku in Azerbaijan. The weather-induced chaos that Woodcock experienced whilst working there is the subject of 'Wind', which as well as being an irresistible pop melody with a hint of psychedelia, is a surreal tale of the daily disorder the city was subject to. The song ends with the image of a drunk parading down the city's main boulevard - a place where the tanks roll on May Day.
'Bill Pritchard Sings Poems by Patrick Woodcock' is a triumph. It's the meeting of minds of a celebrated poet with a celebrated (though not in the UK, much to my constant consternation) singer, musician, and songwriter. A mutual endorsement that will not only introduce their audiences to the others' work but stands as a great work in its own right. As Pritchard notes:
'This album is a labour of love. We created our own little world somewhere between Canada's Arctic and North Staffordshire. We have never met'
I look forward to a day when they may actually meet, and what further work they could create.