Since Sarah Jane Morris is one of the most unassuming of artists (despite singer/songwriter talents that frequently find her compared with Janis Joplin, Nina Simone or Tom Waits), she would certainly shy away from anybody's sentimental connection between her latest work and a global political event with the world's hopes riding on it. But somehow, I found I couldn't keep the sound of this album's haunting songs and that of the worldwide fanfare welcoming Barack Obama to the American presidency from flowing into each other.
These were intense experiences that happened to me close together in time, so perhaps it isn't surprising that somewhere deep down they would vibrate together. Just four days in January 2009 embraced my first hearing of the music from 'Where It Hurts', a night at London's Pizza Express Jazz Club where Sarah Jane was mesmerically performing live (nothing like as regular a privilege for London's music-lovers as it should be), and Obama's historic inauguration on 20 January.
Of course, the repercussions are incomparable in scale. But the emotions touched by this unique singer's defiant work at a crisis-point in her life and Obama's message of vigorous renewal are maybe not so different as all that. The human race knows all about the strength that comes from faith in the future, hope for recovery from hardships and reverses, even tragedies. It's also inspired by the message that what unites us is bigger than what divides us, despite the efforts of all kinds of sectarians to deny it. 'Where It Hurts' is an intimate and very personal statement (it charts the period of Sarah Jane's divorce from her musician husband after 22 years), but it's anything but sentimental, self-pitying or mawkish - as you'd expect from someone whose imagination, empathy and musical agenda have always taken her music way beyond her own four walls.
Sarah Jane Morris recorded these songs in May 2008 at the Dairy Studios in London's Brixton with guitarists Dominic Miller and Tony Remy (musical partners to Sting and Annie Lennox respectively), pianist Alastair Gavin, bassist Henry Thomas and percussionist Martyn Barker. Strings parts, arranged and conducted by Enrico Melozzi, were added later in Rome at Cinik Studios. The music was naturally bound to be overshadowed by the artist's personal turmoil, but the notion that the personal is political - and the reverse - has been true of this singer since her emergence in the 1980s with radical but pop-savvy bands like The Communards (with whose captivating falsetto-singer Jimmy Somerville she shared the massive 1986 chart hit 'Don't Leave Me This Way'), The Republic and The Happy End.
So the music of 'Where It Hurts' is both an uncompromising close-up picture of Sarah Jane Morris struggling in a kind of rebirth, and a broad view of a world that is also hurting, but whose citizens, like her, believe there's a new life beyond. The opening track, 'A World To Win', sets that mood. Written with Dominic Miller and John Brown, the song's original inspiration was the pro-democracy struggle against the military junta in Burma, but it's about the indivisibility of individual and communal strength. 'We need to reach out to search within' goes the song. As she has so often and cannily done, Sarah Jane Morris uses the welcoming materials of global pop (in this instance, it has something close to an Afrobeat exuberance) to splice an urgent message with a sense of hedonistic joyousness that's often missing from explicitly political music.
That same subtle balancing-act, though applied to a more personal theme, happens in the infectious shuffle of 'You Know Her' - which Morris wrote with Martyn Barker. The song is about disillusionment, but it's about rebuilding too. So is 'Never Forget How To Dance', which might be characterized as dealing with what short-story writer Raymond Carver once called 'a small good thing'. Carver meant the small but piquant pleasures in life that keep us going in the face of the intolerable or the unimaginable. Sarah Jane's inspiration for this song was the release of prisoner Kenny Richey after 21 years awaiting his fate on Death Row, but it also rang bells closer to home with her, since through her husband's membership of Irish band The Pogues, Morris had come to know Irish Republican prisoner Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four. These men had been imprisoned during the Provisional IRA bombing campaigns of the late 1980s, and served 14 years in jail on charges from which they were eventually acquitted. 'It's what you hold on to that keeps you sane, when you know you are innocent of what you are accused,' Sarah Jane Morris says of this song.
'You're Really Nowhere At All' and the funky 'Warm Welcomes' were written with Dominic Miller and Martyn Barker respectively. With their poignant images of the song without a tune, the phone-call that won't come, and final confrontation with a relationship that's passed, they're testaments to their performer's uncanny timing and enriching of the meanings of words by bending their sounds, and to a lyricist's eloquence that has deepened in her mid-career. 'Promised Land' is a glowering account of the dreams and betrayals of refugees over the appropriately remorseless tick of Barker's cymbals, given a spinetingling twist by Sarah Jane's eerie falsetto on 'The Land Where Dreams Are Sold.' The elegiac 'It's A Shame' was written by Canadian singer Hawksely Workman. Workman wrote it half an hour before a London gig they shared, and they duetted it without rehearsal - he also called it his 'song for Sarah Jane', for reasons that will be obvious. 'Under The Stars', co-written with Martyn Barker, is an exquisite romantic reverie, and though 'Illumination' came at what the singer calls her 'bleakest hour', the purr of Henry Thomas's bass and the ring of Dominic Miller's nylon strings, eventually caressed by a soaring orchestral arrangement, gives the song a strange, sad buoyancy.
English folk singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine wrote 'Sunset' on his mobile phone for Sarah Jane, and though its theme of abandonment is also in tune with the album, its langorously gentle, slow-jazzy swing and the singer's laid-back delivery and soft rasp make it joyous in its way too. 'Betrayal' is a studio improvisation over a cool backbeat, with the singer's bluesily talkative line shaping one of the most expressive episodes on the album, and the hard-hitting 'Good Night God Bless' (written with Miller and driven by his choppy guitar groove) emphatically punches home - with the help of Tom Waits' brass arranger Ralph Carney's horns - this set's theme of belief in a new day. The closing 'I Learned To Love You' appropriately takes the mood back to reflection in a quiet dialogue only with Miller's guitar, and it's a beautiful soliloquy on irresistible imperfection, and necessary compromise, in love. As the singer says of 'Where It Hurts': 'I hope it's about many things, from marriage to religion to love to fear. Sure, it's about hurting, from heart to soul to planet. But it's also been my way of healing myself.'
-John Fordham (www.sarahjanemorris.co.uk/Foreword_Fordham_wih.html)
All Music Guide