Derry’s Cara Dillon is synonymous with mastery of the folk tradition— with sweetness, feeling, and musical poignancy.
By Colleen Taylor
Cara Dillon’s seventh studio album, “Wanderer” is out, and it’s not what I expected. I typically turn to Dillon when I’m in the mood for an energized trad ballad—songs like upbeat “Johnny Lovely Johnny” or jocular “Jacket So Blue.” “Wanderer,” however, is decidedly different in tenor than Dillon’s previous two albums, “A Thousand Hearts” (2014) and “Hill of Thieves” (2009). It’s quieter, sadder, neither better nor worse, just different. And this audible contradistinction intrigued and moved me from the first track.
Derry’s songbird made a name for herself at a very young age, when she released her debut solo album in 2001. Six releases later, Dillon has advanced far beyond the obstacle of establishing a career in traditional Irish music. At this stage, Dillon is synonymous with mastery of the folk tradition—synonymous with sweetness, feeling, and musical poignancy. She carries an infallible reputation for moving audiences with her tender vocals. With established prestige like this, fans await a new Dillon album with expectations of the highest caliber. Even after six albums, Dillon still managed to exceed expectations by giving her listeners something so unexpected and different from her last album’s sound: the jocular Irish-Americana of “A Thousand Hearts.”
Dillon’s voice is typically accompanied by a chorus of fiddles, guitars and flutes, but “Wanderer” scales everything back. The songs feature Dillon and a soft piano backing or single guitar. The result is a more subdued, simpler sound—one that also allows for a wider emotional range in her vocals. As the album title evinces, “Wanderer” is about being lost and aimless, and particularly, longing for home. The record is in large part an elegy for Derry. “Banks of the Foyle,” one of my favorite tracks on the album, sings like an ode to Derry, in which Dillon almost eulogizes “my own native birthplace…and they call it lovely Derry.” Her vocals in this track are deeper than normal, softer, barely louder than the single guitar accompaniment. It feels raw, personal, believably sentimental. As a whole, the musical styling of this album coheres perfectly with content of the tracks: solitude, nostalgia, longing, weariness. Dillon’s voice matches her album’s theme: she sounds like the lonely wanderer on the road.
Although the album represents a leap in a different direction for Dillon, it also reminds me of some of her earliest work. Like “After the Morning,” her album in 2006, “Wanderer” sounds, at times, like the music of a pop singer. It merges a more modern, pop-like style with old traditional songs like “Both Sides the Tweed” and “Blackwater Side.” Dillon offers something new in her rendition of these ballads—a melancholy that resonates with our modern context. The piano accompaniment allows her to, at times, sidestep the “traditional” conscription. This is particularly poignant in “Lakeside Swans,” which verges on soul music. As a result, Dillon reminds us that the trad genre doesn’t supersede or overshadow her identity as a singer. Paradoxically, the quietness of this album loudly announces Dillon’s individuality as a powerful solo singer first and foremost—one who sings in the traditional genre but doesn’t disappear in it.
If you’re in the mood to dance, “Wanderer” might not be for you. But if you feel like an immersive music experience, one that is powerfully emotive, quiet, nostalgic, then “Wanderer” will stun you with its beauty. Cara Dillon is known for bringing tears to eyes of listeners and audiences everywhere. Her rendition of “There Were Roses” rarely leaves an eye dry. “Wanderer” takes that special ability to move her audience toward deep emotion and longing, and magnifies, elongates it. This becomes clear in the very final track on the album, “Dubhdara,” a gorgeous ballad that qualifies as a close second to the classic “There Were Roses.” It’s hard to imagine anyone that can top the stunning, tragic effect of Cara Dillon’s voice. “Wanderer” makes the others sound like mere replicas.