Jenny Sturgeon – The Living Mountain (review)

An album indistinguishable from the nature it is set in, Sturgeon’s expertise ensures a multi-layered, emotional linchpin of folk

Now even deeper into the cold of Winter, we come to ponder Jenny Sturgeon’s latest work “The Living Mountain” originally released on 16 October 2020. Sturgeon’s first album “From the Skein” was an enjoyable and accomplished work exploring myth, humanity and nature which seriously tickled our fancy back in 2016. Now she is back from the heat of that debut, not so much with a left-turn but rather a wonderful refocus of energies. Jenny Sturgeon’s second solo album “The Living Mountain” is a project that somehow sees both the grand scheme of the living world on it’s canvas as well as being a focused lens examining nature’s fundamental parts.

The CD is methodical in it’s examination of themes in such a way that sets itself apart from the more human myth-centred works of her first album. The reason for this is that it is highly inspired by nature writer Nan Sheperd’s book “The Living Mountain”.  Like a matroyshka doll, the album moves from grand vistas of “the plateau” to the more intricate workings of nature such as “birds, animals, insects” before venturing inward to “man” and later “being”, each piece seemingly fitting in another and becoming grander. Sturgeon walks the chapter structure of the written form and brings her interpretations of each to the CD. Growing up in the Cairngorms and her own academic background (PhD in seabird ecology) mean that there is a perfect marriage of the emotional and intellectual bridge that gives the album a legitimacy of its own as an informed perspective. 

We start this journey wide and far with Sturgeon’s first track “The Plateau”. The instrumentation is a sweeping, embracing gale that has the characteristic of the natural world; Sturgeon’s vocals are cool to the touch and the lyrics are poetic. Rising like water vapour it then drops gently like a spinning, winnowing feather from it’s solitary downy nest as it transitions to the second track. Here the album commits confidently evoking nature metaphors with you “taken downstream.. Propelling forward” both in the physical and mental. The track feels like snapshots of a raw, primal comfort as Sturgeon’s voice calls from the warming harmonium and blankets the listener in a peaceful embrace that reaches outwards.

Throughout the album the percussion, sounds of nature and vocals embrace like grass snakes in the long lawn. For ourselves it stirs a memory of the excellent audio design and layering of the natural world in Lisa Knapp’s “Till April is Dead: A Garland of May”, but to that album’s light and renewal, this is an Autumn gathering of firewood as a dark season counterpoint which excites the senses.  “Frost and Snow” is a good indicator of this with it’s sounds of ice bobbing in water and ice cracking in sheets. Thoroughly cool, Knapp’s voice is a reverberating polar vortex moving through the land and searing the tree branches. Incredibly important, Surgeon’s work whispers tales from our natural selves, seemingly from within the chill of our bones themselves.

The album does take some detours from these broad characterisations we attribute too. Brushes of heat delightfully touch the face in “Air and Light”, for example, a guitar led joy that feels like the sun reaching around your bedroom door awakening you to the day ahead. “The Plants” is another bright number with an earthy, spiritual vibe that is a shared, positive energy as the song proclaims “we are of the sun”. You can picture the sprouting green shoots clumped together, reaching upwards and being at one with the solar rays. “The Senses” is a track which feels like a bow that has tied up all the joys of walking, climbing and being with nature that Sturgeon has touched on on the album and presented it as that thoughtful, unexpected gift that you are given from an old friend.

“The Living Mountain” is an album that is steeped in examining the bonds of humanity and nature through Sturgeon’s own joyful experience making this a potent work of psycho-geography. The Highlands are clearly a cherished place in the singer’s heart, and through the immediacy of this album, we can share in this. Rarely do we come across an album that is so wind-bitingly sensory and quietly grand about the natural world. Credit must be given all round for the additional musicians who have performed as if emerging from the trees (Grant Anderson, Andy Bell, Mairi Campell, Su-a Lee, Jez Riley French), the field recordings that elevate this above a safer more conventional nature folk album (Magnus Robb & The Sound Approach) and Andy Bell (mixer/producer) who makes your safe warm indoors sound very much like the wild, beautiful majesty of the outdoors.

A great sensory experience, a peaceful living and breathing work this is an album whose a fire crackles and pops against the dark wonderful night and it is definitely worth your attention.

If you are interested in hearing more about this labour of love, you can head to buy the album here. Sturgeon has also delved deeper and involved several individuals from all different fields in the making of this project for “The Living Mountain Conversations”. You can check that out here too.

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