The third instalment of Ross Wilson’s testament to the glories of life and living, And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is a magnificent listen; a collection of songs with a beating heart, flurries of melodies with Wilson’s voice an instrument in itself. There is hurt and heartbreak, emotions that give the album some of its most affecting moments, but above all there’s a sense of celebration, a celebration of just being alive, of seizing the moment. The album title (from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), a reminder that life is fleeting so be grateful for each day. Wilson and his cast of supremely talented musicians have crafted an album that dips and soars like a murmuration of starlings offering the listener a myriad of delights.
There’s an organic flow to the album, the songs almost weeping into each other, the opening glimpse of the majestic single, Grateful, here in an abridged state, setting out Wilson’s agenda. Thereafter it’s a thrilling ride through folk and jazz tinged celebrations and wallows, the sinewy bass note that opens the free flowing box of memories that is Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails returning later on the free form closing moments of In The Morning Parts 1 & 2, a nod perhaps to one of Wilson’s heroes John Martyn and his experimentation on songs such as Bless The Weather. In The Morning returns in the guise of Part 3 as the closing song here, this time with Colin Steele’s trumpet leading into Wilson’s closing remarks which are blessed with harmonies from The McCrary Sisters, the Gospel troupe who raised Grateful from the great to the magnificent. There’s a thread here. Musically it’s Wilson’s debt to Martyn and Van Morrison (and if anything there are moments here which recall Veedon Fleece) while lyrically Wilson takes us from his first moments of recovery into his marital breakup and his current sense of purpose.
The billowing breeze of Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails leads into the confessional My Heart, The Sun, a false dawn of hope, the gentle pummel of percussion and lonely trumpet harbingers of what is to come. Rebecca is a spritely love song with some fine guitar work from Wild Watt Wyatt, a respite of sorts as Wilson then heads into the brokedown palace of Pokesdown Waltz, his naked exploration of his marriage ending, a song that bursts with regret, the words so emotive, the delivery stunning. Steele’s lonesome trumpet and Danny Thompson’s burbling bass introduce the centrepiece of the album, Glasgow Rain, an impressionistic journey though the West End as desolate as watching rivulets of rain running down a window as a storm lashes around you. Here Wilson unleashes his love of jazz and experimental music, trumpet, double bass and piano delicately tracing his voice before swelling into a mild cacophony as John Lowrie’s scattered percussion and Lauren MacColl’s violin join in, a ghostly spoken part here delivered by actor, Ewan McGregor. The music then gradually subsiding into rain swept sound effects with a final farewell from the bass and piano washed away like chalk on a pavement. A song of misery and self loathing with Wilson pleading “I try and I try and I try but I told you darling, I’m no good” it’s elevated into a thing of beauty as his voice trembles and pleads, the repetition and phrasing recalling Van Morrison on classics such as Listen To The Lion and Linden Arden Stole The Highlights. Aside from Morrison the song recalls the work of Robert Wyatt and his collaborations with Michael Mantler and Carla Bley while its rain swept Glasgow vista will also beg comparisons to The Blue Nile.
It’s truly a testament to the wonder of this album that even after the emotional blitz and sonic adventure of Glasgow Rain the listener can be transfixed by the following songs. In The Morning Parts 1 & 2 returns to the spritely breeze of Brave Cedars and Rebecca, the band skipping along with a refreshing spring in their step as Wilson and Wrenne and The McCrary Sisters celebrate a new dawn, the words uplifting as Wilson describes a rebirth of sorts. It’s a joyous song and as it heads towards its dissolution in a welter of bowed bass, skittering keyboards and gliding pedal steel, the vocals just peeking through, there’s an undeniable sense of willing Wilson on, urging him to carry on and cast his demons aside. The following track, Love, alleviates this concern as he delivers a most tender and affecting paean to Cupid’s arrow, the mournful, almost brass band opening giving way to a song that most recalls the late John Martyn with Wilson sounding at his most vulnerable. The chorus with Wrenne wrapping herself around Wilson’s voice like a bountiful siren is just gorgeous, the band’s playing hypnotic, a song to savour. Favourite Boy is an almost playful aside, a Harry Nilsson like ballad balancing shadow and light, hopeful for the future but with a sense of gloom ever present. Again The McCrary’s are on hand to enhance the song. The curtain draws with the closing In The Morning Part 3, Steele’s trumpet coolly recalling the likes of Miles Davis before Wilson looks to the future over a lonesome picked guitar, the band gradually joining in, fiddle to the fore and The McCrary’s back in the fold for the blossoming swell at the end. The words here, as throughout the album are poetic and inspiring, indeed, had we quoted some of the gems from the album this review would be twice as long. Suffice to say that Wilson here sings, My best days they still lie before me, a sentiment that his very dedicated following will surely subscribe to.
And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is an album of import, a personal statement from Ross Wilson which is suffused with a humanity and grace that one generally attributes to a great novelist. Wilson is a rare animal these days, his music vibrates with a life-force sadly missing in much of the music offered to us. On stage he has an uncanny ability to draw an audience into his world, an Odyssey of loss and redemption and the album does capture that. A definite contender here for album of the year.