Emily Barkers’ mesmerising ‘A Dark Murmuration of Words’ has been the soundtrack to my 2021 lockdown mornings. There’s both beauty and sadness in these songs that describe the natural world and what humanity has done to it, while bridging from nature to mull over human emotions.
In the title track, for example, you can imagine Barker musing on where life will take her next while gazing out on a landscape: “Tidal questions at my feet / Home is where the heart lines meet.. Down every dune of your shoreline / I move with the migratory birds / Me and my shadows in flight path rhyme / A dark murmuration of words”.
Elsewhere, the songwriter’s observations of nature lead to lament, as in ‘Where Have The Sparrows Gone?’, which appears to imagine life in a near-future climate apocalypse: “Blow the dust off / Grandma’s gas mask / Hide in the place we played / Where the woods were once”. Or in the more obvious message to a son or daughter in ‘Strange Weather’: “So as you move through this world / After both of us are gone / I hope you will look back and forgive / Us for what we’ve done”.
There’s also a nod on ‘This Machine’ to Black Lives Matter, a song which has echoes of Anais Mitchell’s ‘Way Down Hadestown’, and the ongoing concealment of slavery’s role in the foundations of the present-day wealth and comfort of privileged societies: “I covered all my tracks in books on history / Justified my actions in anthropology / I chose what to remember and what we should forget / I covered all my tracks in your blood and sweat”.
Meanwhile, even though markontour is currently fortunate to be grounded in one of Britain’s few ‘Dark Sky’ areas, I am still drawn to ‘When Stars Cannot Be Found’, a song which advises regular travellers to seek comfort in the night’s sky when far from home: “I see Venues shine through a silhouette of trees / I feel so small tonight. I guess as it should be / We are made of stardust, oxygen and bones / So don’t forget to look up, when you feel alone”.
But the line I keep coming back to again and again opens ‘The Woman Who Planted Trees’: “I can tell my age / By the height of trees / By the years they’ve stood / Growing over me”. How beautiful is that? And, as I think about the 5,000 year-old yew tree a few miles from where I live, how great a reminder that even as humanity’s anthropocene footprint gets ever bigger, it still remains shallow in the context of life on our planet.