The debut album ““West to the Evening Sun” is a cultural powerhouse.
PHOTO BY POOKA DUBH
By Colleen Taylor
“West to the Evening Sun”—a new album by Ailie Blunnie—opens with a beat and a whisper. As a whole, the album melds melody and rhythm into a cohesive sound this is at once lyrical and perplexing. This music will have you furrowing your brows then looking out the window into your own memories. For a debut album release, this is a remarkable product.
I first heard of Ailie Blunnie this summer when a new acquaintance insisted I attend her show at Whelan’s in Dublin. Shortly after the recommendation, I met her in one of my favorite Dublin cafes—the Library Bar in the Central Hotel. There, we discussed her background, her interests and her forthcoming album. She told me about growing up in Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim, her musical family, her degree in Psychology, her love for Joni Mitchell and John Spillane, and her nerves about “West to the Evening Sun.” Most remarkably, for the first time in my life as a music columnist, the interview went both ways. Blunnie would return nearly every question I asked her with one for me—about me, my PhD, my family, and so on. I was stunned: many musicians I interview can’t be bothered to learn my name. I had gone into the meeting already liking Blunnie—the few tracks I had listened to had something unpretentious and pleasant about them—but when I met her, I was even more impressed. The sound in my headphones and the artist behind it instantly melded, enhancing one another. Just like her music, that interview had a lasting, positive effect on me. Now, I’m delighted to be able to talk about her full, 10-track debut, which is—like her kindness—genuine.
I think of the tracks on “West to the Evening Sun” as a series of missives, rather than melodies. Listening to these songs is like sitting alone in an archive, reading a collection of letters shared between the closest of friends. There is tragedy, confession, hope, love. Moreover, there is narrative as well as harmonic integrity. “Happy New Year,” for instance, is a heartbreaking song about loss and separation that, like the psychological experience of a breakup, builds in drama over the course of the four minutes. The album is also a missive in the sense that Blunnie speaks as much as she sings her lyrics. You can hear her accent at many points throughout the album, even when she sings a chorus, making her music as a whole more real, immediate and local. It brings the grand scale of her ideas and innovative arrangements down to the familiar inflections of her home county, Leitrim.
Although Blunnie has, at times, found her roots in Carrick-on-Shannon confining, they have proven a creative boon for her music. Blunnie’s style is modern and current, but also mythic and timeless. It fees like contemporary pseudo-Cetic Revival. “And So to Sleep” points to the influence of Moya Brennan and Enya. However, Blunnie doesn’t simply copycat: over the course of “And So to Sleep” she moves from New Age to her own indie song-speech, and then turns back to the echo-y New Age drama of ghostly hums and violins. Likewise, “I Promised Her Gold”—one of my favorites on the album—sounds like a dream. In that track, Blunnie whispers of a lake at the edge of the wood—a Yeatsian image and symbol. Her Irish roots are most poignant in “Would That You May,” a confessional track which combines Blunnie’s airy vocals with a monastic choir. This song captures the history and majesty of the Irish Catholic monastic tradition, its haunting chants, its beauty, its ghosts. I never knew that anything could sound more powerful, or more right, than a sweet feminine voice contrasted against the atmosphere of a big, dark, ghostly cathedral. For an Irish music tradition in particular, “Would That You May” is a cultural powerhouse. Blunnie achieves something sacred and historic in this song—it is a “must listen.”
The singer’s mystery and musical innovation carry through till the end of the album, coming to a peak with “Love Song to a Bicycle.” This one begins with something of a slam-poem, mixing poetry with gothic reverbs and lilts. At first, I thought it might be a riff on a soundtrack for a horror film, but Blunnie quickly transforms the gothic into something more upbeat and uniquely her own. In fact, my literary ears hear “Love Song to a Bicycle” as more poem than song. Blunnie plays with words, grammar, metaphor. The track creates a complex literary construction with two figures of what might be the same person speaking and watching one another. Here, the singer’s degree in psychology comes to the fore: the song is almost like listening to a split consciousness. “Love Song” is undoubtedly the strangest track on the album, but it is also one of the most exceptional because of its postmodern style, deconstructing the form of the song from within. In a world of top 40 hits that all sound the same, how exciting it is to have something as subversive and provocative as “Love Song to a Bicycle.”
If I have one critique of Ailie Blunnie’s music, it’s that she underestimates it. When she discussed her career with me in Dublin this summer, Blunnie seemed tentative at times. She said of her decision to go pro, that she thought she’s “give it a go,” with the caveat that there are so many great artists out there. Whether or not she can see it yet, Blunnie’s album is special. This isn’t just another indie-esque album coming out of twenty-first century Ireland. This is something truly creative, insightful, and intellectual about “West to the Evening Sun.” In fact, to call this music only does half its due justice. This album is a poetry collection too. The lyrics could as easily be sold in Hodges Figgis as Claddagh Records. In fact, I could happily write an analytical essay on each one of the tracks on this album. To do so, however, would be to crudely dissect the artistic mystery that Blunnie has so ingeniously arranged. So, rather than write any more, I’ll go back and have another listen. I suggest you do the same.
Last week, Blunnie launched her album “West to the Evening Sun” in Dublin (to a crowd of 170) and Carrick-on-Shannon. You can listen and find out more at ailieblunnie.com.