This review originally ran on The Quietus.
One of RM Hubbert’s many charms is his ability to pick apart the scars of life, opening them for collective inspection. A bare, enticing vulnerability is omnipresent in his recorded work and live performances, examined through strums, plucks and finger taps, and the stories and the spaces in between.
Since debut solo album First & Last saw instrumental guitar pieces as diary entries, songs used as a coping mechanism through times of grief and illness, Hubby has continued an impressive, unforeseen musical evolution. Telling The Trees sees a return of sorts to the collaborative formula of past work, but with an altered approach, and subsequently an invigorated outcome.
This is the guitarist’s first new body of work post his Ampersand Trilogy – three loosely grouped albums over around five years that explored past traumas, letting go and looking forward. Where 2013 Scottish Album of the Year award-winning Thirteen Lost & Found reached back to reconnect, with collaborators and often old friends writing together, on his fourth solo effort he beckons new blood to steer the story.
It is a testament to the warmth and respect that Hubby commands that a handpicked selection of artists and performers have responded to the invitation to collaborate by offering up some of their strongest material. Contributors both long-established and emerging (many of whom he’d never met) were gifted something Hubbert had written with them in mind, and given free reign. Far from the tangled mess that could have ensued, what was born of naked trust has become something truly beautiful – once again proving Hubbert as master of styles and composition, able to tackle and seamlessly blend any genre with his own inimitable flair.
This is some of the most unexpected and exciting work Hubby has ever made – self-assured and with a glorious pop sheen. With Chem19’s Paul Savage on production duties, Telling The Trees effortlessly melds Hubbert’s playing with all manner of ingredients – over spoken word tales of love and life cycles (‘The Dinosaur Where We Fell In Love’) and under electro beats and synths (‘Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror’ with Conquering Animal Sound’s Anneke Kampman).
The mix of artists on this record is astounding – a blend of big hitters and thrilling ones to watch. First single ‘I Can Hold You Back’, featuring prodigious singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, moves from forlorn, drifting verse to menacing, bold percussion, before the electropop heartbeat and wonderful candyfloss melodies of Ladytron’s Helen Marnie on ‘Sweet Dreams’.
Where last album Breaks & Bone played host to the timid emergence of Hubby’s own vocal, on Telling The Trees he’s audible just once on ‘The Dog’. A frail, bruised and blackened heartbreak of a song that sees Hubbert paired with fellow (2015) SAY Award winner Kathryn Joseph. It’s a delicate, fragile beast, with each careful note echoing the ache of lost intimacy; lovelorn confessions soaked in regret. Hubby’s vocal parts lift and cradle Joseph’s, the creak and waltz of guitar strings carrying through to the last exhale.
Martha Ffion’s rolling melodies and country-tinged harmonies on ‘The Unravelling’ are sublime, before refined beats and synth and a vocal with the clarity and grace of Tracey Thorn from the multi-talented Sarah J Stanley (aka HQFU) – its sweetness belying dark lyrical imagery. ‘KAS’ bursts with energy and new beginnings – Aby Vulliamy’s string embellishments are fresh shoots at sunrise; the perfect playful accompaniment to Hubbert’s bounding, hope-filled guitar parts. Similarly optimistic is the warmth and thrill of new love on ‘Yew Tree’, from folk star Karine Polwart, before one half of The Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor Friedberger, provides vocals for the album’s closer (which also features Mogwai’s Barry Burns and Spoon’s Jim Eno).
Where once grief and sadness dominated RM Hubbert’s output, Telling The Trees has more than its share of spring warmth for the winter-weary. It is decidedly pop in parts, both accessible and innovative, reaffirming Hubbert’s standing as one of Scotland’s finest and most treasured artists.