When you listen, today, to history as documented early on in the folk and blues cannons, it’s all too apparent that the human condition hasn’t come as far as the songs have over the centuries. Whether political oppression or romantic devastation, we’re just really up to the same shenanigans we’ve always been up to. So, when Eric D. Johnson says the new, eponymous Bonny Light Horseman record “is about timeless humanity and hearbreak,” he ain’t lying.
The trio, which also includes Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman, connected originally on Twitter, then debuted at the Eaux Claires festival before really getting to work at an artists’ retreat in Berlin and a studio in Woodstock with the support of folks like Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, Michael Lewis, JT Bates, Kate Stables, Lisa Hannigan, and others. Their vision and sound came together swiftly and sweetly — reimagine traditional tunes for a decidedly contemporary time.
Culled largely from the British Isles, the songs — in this band’s hands — feel wide-armed, warm, and comforting, like a lover wrapping a blanket around you to stave off the cold. No matter which singer takes which song, the whole album holds you close while never clinging too tightly. Doesn’t much matter whether it’s the open hearts or the open tunings pulling the strings, just let them.
Now, let’s get really real: When has a mention of Napoleon Bonaparte ever evoked the soul-soothing sensation it does in the title track, even while tied to unspeakable pain of a soldier lost to his love because of war? Not ever. Until now.
After opening with “Bonny Light Horseman,” the set moves to the stunning, Johnson-fronted, one-take cut of “Deep in Love” which was originally aimed at the Fruit Bats, until Kaufman caught its trad hook and folded it all together with some lyrics from “Waly Waly” and “The Water Is Wide.” And that’s just how it keeps on going. Song after song, a familiarity lingers in the back of your head and heart, even if you don’t catch them right up front.
Further in, a gently spirited mash-up of “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Jane Jane” lives under the latter title as Johnson and Mitchell swap melodies and mic time. The inevitable heartbreak of “The Roving,” the tender mourning of “Blackwaterside,” the hopeful yearning of “Magpie’s Nest”… Bonny Light Horseman is a true drop-the-needle record with every single song being as strong as the ones before and after. That’s not at all unexpected, considering the brilliant work of each of its members, but it is still a wonder to behold that will surely stand for centuries to come.