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Mary Lattimore, "Silver Ladders"

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cover imageGiven how many achingly gorgeous songs Mary Lattimore has released over the last few years, I was not exactly clamoring for any significant changes to either her aesthetic or her working methods. However, when I learned that she had flown out to Cornwall to record with Neil Halstead, my expectations for Silver Ladders nevertheless increased dramatically.  And for the most part, those intimidatingly high expectations were met with this album, though this is still very much a Mary Lattimore album rather than the Lattimore/Mojave 3 or Lattimore/Slowdive collaboration of my dreams (though "Til a Mermaid Drags You Under" feels damn close to such a transcendent union).  For the most part, however, Silver Ladders is exactly what I would expect from Lattimore at this point in her career: a near-flawless collection of tenderly sublime, nuanced, and emotionally resonant harp reveries enhanced with a subtle palette of effects.  Whether or not Silver Ladders surpasses any of Lattimore's previous great albums is difficult to say, as my feelings on that vary by the day, but it definitely belongs among her most memorably beautiful statements to date.

Ghostly International

There is an ancient and timeless adage attributed to Florus which states "the poet is born, not made."  That is obviously a hard truth for a lot of would-be poets and artists out there, but there are fortunately many, many alternate viewpoints stating that absolutely everyone has a poet lurking inside them (or whatever).  Nevertheless, Florus's observation was the one that instantly popped into my mind when I started thinking about why I love so much of Mary Lattimore's work.  Normally, I do not have such thoughts when I like something, but it unexpectedly struck me that 1.) I am not particularly predisposed towards harps, and 2.) I would not like this album nearly as much if the exact same melodies were played on a guitar or a piano instead.  I ultimately concluded that Lattimore simply has a singular intuition for both crafting beautiful, emotionally resonant melodies and the (equally crucial) nuances of how those melodies need to be played.  The latter is something that truly needs to be felt on an instinctive level.  In fact, one of my favorite details about this album was Lattimore's reminiscence regarding a poster of a surfer in Halstead’s studio: she would contemplate it "each day, looking at the sunlight glinting on the dark wave," taking in "the contrast between the dark lows and the glittering highs."  She clearly internalized that aesthetic in a profound way, as few artists can achieve that contrast as consistently and as beautifully as Lattimore does on Silver Ladders.  Every single piece is a delicate and masterfully executed balancing act of achieving warmth, tenderness, and bittersweet emotional depth without ever erring in the direction of either melancholy or toothless prettiness. 

Unsurprisingly, Halstead seems to channel that poster's lessons quite well himself, as the most sublime and poignant moments on the album are those in which he enhances Lattimore's melodies with an intertwining one of his own.  In that regard (and every other one as well), "Til a Mermaid Drags You Under" is the album’s absolutely mesmerizing centerpiece.  In fact, it may very well be the greatest piece Mary has ever recorded.  The piece starts off in deceptively simple fashion, however, as Lattimore opens with a slow, repeating arpeggio and Halstead soon joins her with a hazy, slow-motion guitar figure.  Admittedly, a jam session between Mary and Neil sounds just fine by me, but a tenderly quivering harp motif eventually appears in the upper register and the piece gradually coheres into an endlessly ascending tour de force of god-tier beauty.  In fact, there is at least one place where it feels like "Mermaid" has finally reached its sublime and perfect zenith only to have a fresh theme appear to push it even further into the heavens.  As such, I have no reservations at all about proclaiming it an instant, stone-cold masterpiece.  There are plenty of other gems among the remaining six pieces, however, and they cover fairly varied stylistic territory.  "Sometimes He's in My Dreams," co-written by Halstead, probably comes closest to revisiting the aesthetic of "Mermaid," as it centers around a very "Slowdive/Mojave 3" guitar figure.

I was more struck by the following "Chop on the Climbout" though, which uncharacteristically opens with a woozily lovely organ motif.  Naturally, Lattimore beautifully accompanies that theme with some rippling harp arpeggios and Halstead contributes some echoing guitar, but my favorite moment occurs when a steadily intensifying bass hum unexpectedly breaks up into gnarled, crackling noise (I like surprises).  Elsewhere, the brief opener "Pine Trees" captures Lattimore's harp melodies at their most tender, delicate, and fluid, while the closing "Thirty Tulips" comes the closest to rivaling “Mermaid” as the defining stunner of the album: it is an absolute feast of tumbling, beautifully intertwined melodies warmed by an elegiac progression of organ chords.  As with "Mermaid," there is plenty to appreciate in the details, as it sometimes feels like a chain reaction of rippling themes is spiraling off of the central melody. 

Naturally, any album that features two instant classics is one that I will likely be revisiting for a long time, so Silver Ladders has definitively earned a place among At the Dam and Collected Pieces as one of my favorite Mary Lattimore releases.  Speaking of At the Dam, I was amusingly relieved when Lattimore expanded her palette with prominent effects on that album, as I was worried that she could only record a few more solo harp albums before winding up in a stylistic cul de sac in which she kept revisiting familiar territory to diminishing returns.  That is definitely an issue I have with many of the guitarists continuing the Takoma legacy (even the ones I like), but I now believe that any similar concerns with Lattimore are thankfully unfounded.  Granted, Silver Ladders features several enhancements beyond Mary and her harp (guitars, organs, Neil Halstead), but none of them dramatically change the essence of her original vision—they just make what she was already doing sound better than it otherwise would have.  That said, Halstead was definitely a perfect and inspired collaborator, as I cannot imagine "Mermaid" being the same towering achievement without him.  However, I suspect the rest of Silver Ladders would still be wonderful even if Lattimore had recorded it herself on a boombox in a sewer, as the fundamental beauty of these pieces lies in how her melodies twinkle, tumble, hesitate, and intertwine in all the right places and how absolutely effortless she makes that organic fluidity feel.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 02 November 2020 10:05  


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