After the prolonged gaps which have separated James Varda's excellent releases since his debut in 1988, the arrival of the singer songwriter's fourth album just one year after 'The River And The Stars' comes as a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, this uncharacteristic haste is due to the fact that he has recently been diagnosed with incurable cancer.
Inevitably, this fact casts a huge shadow over the record yet, though the fading of the light is a recurring theme, these ten songs are affirmations to the preciousness of life rather than grim contemplations of mortality.
The knowledge that time is fast running out has evidently prompted a renewed lucidity and urgency which the usually reticent Varda publicly acknowledges by stating: ‘It’s definitely the best collection of songs I’ve gathered together. There’s a cohesion and a completeness, an arc from beginning to end.’
The down to earth intimacy of Varda's voice has certain similarities to that of Bill Fay. There are also some parallels that can be drawn between the philosophical outlook of these two artists. On 'Never Ending Happening', Fay sang "Just to be a part of this, is astonishing to me"; a view of life that I'm sure Varda would wholeheartedly endorse. Yet, while Fay's songs are rich in religious symbolism, Varda takes a more human-centred perspective.
As with his previous albums, the solace of nature is ever present and takes on an added poignancy here. On May This Moment Ever Glow, Summer heat contrasts with frost's glaze while on Let My Place, he makes the prayer-like reflection: "Let my place be a broad leafed wood in springtime".
The C word is not used but on The Doctor Spoke the debilitating effects of the disease are chillingly evoked: "Scan by scan the picture grew, a triptych of liver, lung and bone. This song tells of the moment he and his wife heard the terrible news and first realised that there was nothing that could be done to prevent the cancer spreading.
Facing the curse head on with honesty and dignity is a brave move but even more touching are the songs in which Varda reflects upon broader-based emotions relating to the transience of existence.
In One Thing After Another, he likens life to "a game of chance [which] plays cold and rough" and thus all but recognises its absurdity and futility. However, these downbeat thoughts are tempered by the consolations the love of a good woman can bring; something he expresses most directly in the songs Our Love Will Never End and Only Love.
A deep sense of comfort is also implicit in a beautiful trance-like coda to Pass It On. This repeats the song's title so that the message reverberates like a mantra to remind himself (and us) that after we are gone something vital always remains. Johanna Herron's backing vocals and Andrew Hopper's cello playing help make this a standout track
The resigned mood of Beside The Sea("I pledged I'd always stay but it is not to be") reflects the album's sombre tone but, throughout, there is notable absence of despondency or rage.
Ultimately, Varda's songs tell us as much about the human condition as they do of his own life. Singing "We come and go. That's all"on We Won't Dream, the final track, we can recognise this as a universal truth rather than a personal tragedy.
Chance And Time may prove to be James Varda's final album and, if so, he ends on a high, bringing genuine warmth and wisdom to bear on 'difficult' subjects.
Pass it on.
James Varda's website