Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
Jim Moray sits on a chair in Abbey Road recording studios holding an acoustic guitar, surrounded by microphones. He is wearing earphones as he is in the middle of a session for his album, Beflean.
Jim Moray, recording 'Beflean' at Abbey Road. Photo credit: Jon Wilks

Jim Moray – Beflean: An Alternative History, 2002-2023, a review

Gavin McNamara takes a listen to the latest album from folk polymath, Jim Moray, and finds what he thinks may well be the album of the year.

Release Date
24 November 2023
Beflean, Jim Moray's latest album, masterfully reinterprets his folk catalogue with a stripped back approach. Recorded at Abbey Road, it features a host of guest artists, all the while holding focus on Moray's soulful voice and exceptional musicianship. It stands out as a strong contender for album of the year.

What’s that Alan Partridge joke about his favourite Beatles album? “Tough one. I’d have to say The Best of The Beatles”. Well, what’s your favourite Jim Moray album? 

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Beflean isn’t just a brilliant Jim Moray album, it’s probably a late contender for album of the year. By anyone. In any genre. At all.

The idea was to take songs from the artist’s impressive back catalogue and re-record, re-jig, and re-evaluate them. Moray took them to the legendary Abbey Road studios, stripped some back, re-imagined others and has put them together, helping us to remember that he is, and always has been, a startlingly original voice in the folk world. 

It starts just as his debut EP, I Am Jim Moray, did way back in 2002. His voice is chopped, looped and manipulated on the traditional Sussex song ‘Lemady’ [Roud 193] and the song sounds as fresh as it did 21 years ago. His voice has matured but the same feeling remains; there’s something exciting lurking amongst the scratches and samples. The electronics provide the drip and drop of nature, a green pool in a gentle summer storm. 

‘Fair Margaret and Sweet William’ [Roud 253/ Child 74] may be the quintessential Jim Moray song. Originally on Upcetera, his re-recorded version is everything that Moray does wonderfully well. A tale of two lovers who die of heartbreak, set in a multi-layered sound world, led by a piano. Moray has always taken these trad folk songs and turned them into glorious pop tunes and, even when things are slightly stripped down, this is pop music that makes you catch your breath. The manic rhythms are replaced by muted electric guitars, pipes and snatches of violin but, after two tracks, this album is starting to bear some significant fruit. Maybe it’s not just the best Jim Moray album; maybe it’s one of the great modern folk albums.

One thing is for sure: Moray’s loud electric folk band, False Lights, are wildly underappreciated. Surely one of the finest live folk bands of the last 10 years, they are represented here by ‘Tyne of Harrow’ [Roud 1553], a gorgeous waltz built around a banjo and an accordion. It has a much more intimate feel than the festival-pleasing original; it feels closer to a house concert than a huge festival-botherer. Tom Moore, Archie Churchill-Moss and Cormac Byrne all work their myriad magic across the song and are the first of a string of guests that reshape so many of the tracks. 

These guests make up a huge part of Beflean. Jude Rees, an oboist who specialises in early music, adds an air of the medieval to ‘The Vandals Of Hammerwich / Ring Of Bells’. Jon Boden and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne are also superb on this Morris tune. Boden’s fiddle brings a lusty edge to ‘Hind Etin’ [Roud 33/ Child 41], while Jamie Francis’ banjo on ‘Jim Jones in Botany Bay’ [Roud 5478] is, very subtly, transportive. The star is still Moray’s voice, however. He has such control, such precision. The stories that he tells leap to life, each twist and turn explored, each character beautifully uncovered. 

Perhaps the most beautiful of all of the songs on Beflean is not a traditional one at all. Moray says that ‘Sounds Of the Earth’ doesn’t really belong to him anymore, such is its power as a wedding song, a song to celebrate love. He tells the story of the golden record that was launched into space on Voyager 1 in 1977 by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, a mixtape of humanity that may outlast us all, and the love story connected to it. It is, without question, one of the greatest songs ever written. If the sound of falling in love could ever be captured in a five-minute folk-pop song, then Moray has done it. It is the song that you’ll return to again and again, the one that will squeeze your heart and bother your tear ducts. When Moray sings, “it’s good to hear your voice, I’ve been waiting for so long,” you can almost feel your heart exploding. It is the one that you’ll want to listen to forever. 

In amongst the astronomers, the lovers and the ghosts, Beflean features three Lords. ‘Lord Douglas’ [Roud 23/ Child 7] was originally on Moray’s 2012 album, Skulk. Here he adds a gorgeous duet with Angeline Morrison which adds further heartbreak to an already devastating song. It is gloriously romantic – the storytelling, once again, exquisite. BJ Cole adds his trademark pedal steel which only heightens the tones in which this picture is painted.

‘Lord Ellenwater’ [Roud 89/ Child 208] features Tom Moore‘s viola and takes a song about beheading and makes it lovely. Whilst ‘Lord Bateman’ [Roud 40/ Child 53] encapsulates exactly what this album is all about. Beflean is an old word meaning to “strip off skin or bark”, and here Moray strips away the layers of his original recording from the groundbreaking Sweet England. It becomes less frantic, slightly simpler. It allows the words space to breathe and allows space for the wind to whistle around castle walls. Ambient electric guitar is married with haunting duduk and ney played by London-based Turkish musician, Murat Savaş, to produce a ghostly chill. 

Everyone has their favourite artists. Everyone has albums that mean more than the grooves that the songs sit in. Moray’s albums have always meant something special and Beflean is the perfect distillation of everything that he has done. It is, at turns, wonderful and devastating. It keeps its eyes on the future and keeps the past firmly in mind. Album of the year. Hands down. 

Beflean: An Alternative History, 2002-2023, by Jim Moray, is released on November 24, 2023. It can be purchased from the artist’s Bandcamp page.