In folk circles, any new album from Martin Simpson is an event, and the beauty is that he never disappoints. Co-produced by his Sheffield neighbor Richard Hawley, this strips everything back to just vocals and guitar, and after the full band outing of 2011′s Purpose + Grace, it sounds delightfully intimate and close. It’s a disc of first takes, recorded quite literally at Simpson’s kitchen table, with barely an overdub on it — the perfect showcase for the talents of one of the world’s greatest fingerstyle guitarists. He gets to strut his stuff on a pair of instrumentals — “Shepherds Rejoice” is a moody pleasure — but mostly he’s accompanying his own singing with a rippling cascade of notes; his playing is breathtakingly beautiful.
Simpson’s greatest fame is as a guitar virtuoso, but in recent years he’s also grown into a world-class songwriter: His 2008 track “Never Any Good” won Song of the Year in the BBC2 Folk Awards. Here the standout moment is “Jackie and Murphy,” based on the true tale of Jack Kirkpatrick, a World War I donkey handler who used his animal to rescue the wounded, but was refused the Victoria Cross because he was nominated in the wrong category. It’s a low-key piece that doesn’t blare its outrage, and is up there with his best compositions.
Simpson also artfully interprets other artists. There’s a cover of Bob Dylan’s “North Country Blues,” a take on Chris Woods’s acerbic blast at organized religion, “Come Down Jehovah,” and a remarkable version of Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song.” It’s rare that an artist can make one of Cohen’s songs his own — Jeff Buckley is one of the few who has managed it — but Simpson changes the rhythm and picking style and pulls it off: a remarkable feat.
Forty years into his career, the folk luminary continues to push himself. And with each album his ear for a tune gets sharper and sharper.