An Attempt to Justify My Love of The Albatross

Judy Collins, to the extent that she is remembered today, is remembered primarily as a covers artist. Her catalogue dwells comfortably in the shadows and biographical footnotes of her more storied contemporaries — Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Stills, etc. But when Collins did apply her considerable talent to songwriting, the effects were (and still are) enchanting, staggering. No song more-so than “The Albatross,” the penultimate track on 1967’s Wildflowers.

Allegedly penned after encouragement from Cohen (three of whose songs pepper Wildflowers), The Albatross is a marvel, a riddle — Impressionistic, yes, (R)/romantic, yes. Baroque, opulent, and even indulgent. But absolutely brimming with the truth of human consciousness/experience. Like many of Cohen’s best songs, every note, every word is suffused with, is uttered in the deference to, love and death. It is indeed (as is so often said of songs, but it really truly is this time—I promise!) a tapestry, deftly woven. It is the Unicorn Resting in the Garden. And like that work, there is nothing it does not reflect.

Lacking even a lay knowledge of musical theory or composition, I’ll not waste anyone’s time trying to dissect the song. So let it suffice that we acknowledge the complexity of the song’s structure (after a cursory scan I’ve arrived at a repeating ABCBDEA) and arrangement, a richness that is, I believe, evident to any ear, and particularly by the standards of pop music (both then and today). Key changes and alternating refrains tug us, batter us, like so many headland winds, first this way, then that: a swirling, disorienting, ethereal dance. Written on piano, we instantly grasp both Collins’ classical training as well as her affinity for the theatrical tradition.

As for the lyrics, what can be said about them that they do not say themselves? I’ll try to pin down some cursory notes. As such, I think it’s important to reproduce those lyrics here, in their entirety:

The lady comes to the gate dressed in lavender and leather
Looking North to the sea she finds the weather fine
She hears the steeple bells ringing through the orchard
All the way from town
She watches seagulls fly
Silver on the ocean stitching through the waves
The edges of the sky

Many people wander up the hills
From all around you
Making up your memories and thinking they have found you
They cover you with veils of wonder as if you were a bride
Young men holding violets are curious to know if you have cried
And tell you why
And ask you why
Any way you answer

Lace around the collars of the blouses of the ladies
Flowers from a Spanish friend of the family
The embroid’ry of your life holds you in
And keeps you out but you survive
Imprisoned in your bones
Behind the isinglass windows of your eyes

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone

Even now by the gate with you long hair blowing
And the colors of the day that lie along your arms
You must barter your life to make sure you are living
And the crowd that has come
You give them the colors
And the bells and wind and the dream

Will there never be a prince who rides along the sea and the mountains
Scattering the sand and foam into amethyst fountains
Riding up the hills from the beach in the long summer grass
Holding the sun in his hands and shattering the isinglass?

Day and night and day again and people come and go away forever
While the shining summer sea dances in the glass of your mirror
While you search the waves for love and your visions for a sign
The knot of tears around your throat is crystallizing into your design

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone
Come away alone…with me

This world is familiar to us: A quasi-Arthurian neverwhere — that wellspring of so much of the 60’s folk revival. But the Albatross is thread by an attendance to material/textural detail, as well as a profound psychological realism, distinguishing it from the aesthetical traditionalism of, say, your Steeleye Spans and your Fairport Conventions.

Regarding the material, successive verses begin “The lady comes to the gate dressed in lavender and leather,” and, “Lace around the collars of the blouses of the ladies.” But the material begins to bleed, turns ineffable: Ocean waves are “stitched,” either with seagulls or the silver light of the sun, depending on one’s reading of the line. And soon we arrive at the following diagnosis: “The embroid’ry of your life holds you in and keeps you out but you survive Imprisoned in your bones behind the isinglass windows of your eyes.” Again we have a sense of the fairy-tale familiar: A maiden (gender inferred) trapped away by circumstances (“the embroid’ry of your life”), though here we find no tower, only bones and the “Isinglass windows of your eyes.” let’s note that isinglass, which appears twice in the song, is a form of collagen derived from dried fish bladders. A fine, translucent, malleable film, isinglass has numerous applications, including the clarification of wine/beer and the restoration and conservation of parchment.

The isinglass is that which keeps us away, from ourselves and from the world. It can take many forms—obfuscation, ennui, nostalgia—but we all live with and through it, and sense it there, barely visible, a layer that has become, through habit and time, nearly part of us. When we do sense it, it is unbearable. And so we dream of a prince, or anyone really, who might hold the sun in his hands and shatter the isinglass: We dream of enlightenment, rapture, ecstasy, communion—which is to say we dream of love.

And all the while, dreaming of love, we fear our diminishing prospects. We sense, in the night, that we are gripped by time. Or, more directly, our mortality. Hence, the lyrical and melodic shift of the chorus— the night to the verse’s day: “And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain, down the hills through the long grass to the sea. And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain” The iron wheels—surely that is death. A cart heavy laden with bodies and souls making its way to the sea. And whereas, in the light of the first verse, among fine weather, the lady heard “the steeple bells ringing through the orchard,” now it is “hard bells ringing with pain.”

For whom do those bells toll? These “leaden circles dissolving in the air,” as Woolf would say? You should know by now.

This is the burden that twins all hope and longing: an awareness of its finitude. We all toil forever beneath the long shadow of the albatross.

This insightful and beautifully written piece was contributed by this week’s special guest blogger Emmett Shoemaker!

~ SMS

 

9 Comments

  1. I just discovered this excellent and perceptive piece and thoroughly enjoyed reading it—so much so that I immediately listened to Albatross several times over with much more thoughtfulness and deeper insight than before. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of a nearly forgotten treasure. I remember trying to sing and play this on my guitar with dismal results. Only Judy could pull off such a haunting melody. Beautiful writing Emmett. Look forward to reading more from you.

  3. Emmett your own rising and flowing discriptive prose stand true and provides a wonderful window into this re-awakened time of our lives. Thanks for bringing Judy into the present where she is needed. Judy’s presience is astounding.

  4. A wonderful article on the complexities of Judy and her writing. A song of times long past, loved it.

  5. BRAVO! Welcome Emmett to SMS. It’s especially satisfying to discover this work from artist Judy Collins. Your detailed and passionate review only adds to the enjoyment of listening to “The Albatross” for the first time. Thank you.

  6. Today’s featured article (just above)is provided by this weeks special guest blogger, Emmett Shoemaker! Emmett is a talented writer, journalist, music critic and educator. And yes, we are Father and Son! Please join me in welcoming him to SMS and enjoy his take on “The Albatross”
    ~ SMS

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