JoSelle Vanderhooft penned this review.
Normally, I can’t stand winter. It’s cold, it’s dismal, and I tend to get sick a lot. Nonetheless, winter 2006 has made me one happy woman, in spite of the general nastiness. This is largely thanks to an event that I and several other folk/Celtic/world/eclectic music fans have been anticipating for nine years — the release of a new studio album from Loreena McKennitt. Since its arrival on my doorstep, shortly after the release date, An Ancient Muse has not left my CD changer, and I don’t anticipate that it will for quite some time. Though I have come to expect nothing but a musical feast from a singer of McKennitt’s caliber and talent, I am pleased to report that An Ancient Muse is not just good — it is likely McKennitt’s finest album since 1994’s The Mask and the Mirror.
At first listen, one may think that An Ancient Muse sounds a bit too much like McKennitt’s last studio effort The Book of Secrets , to constitute a new recording, instead of a continuation. However, a more attentive second hearing shows that the similarities are entirely superficial. An Ancient Muse builds on the groundwork laid by McKennitt in The Book of Secrets, and even previous albums The Mask and the Mirror and 1992’s The Visit — her fascination with Middle Eastern music, her passion for exploring the common threads that bind different cultures, and ultimately her concern with themes of longing and travel. Yet where The Book of Secrets explored the excitement and mystery of spiritual and geographic quests, An Ancient Muse focuses on their more sorrowful and meditative aspects. Its lack of up-tempo songs like Secrets’ “The Mummer’s Dance” and “Marco Polo” give McKennitt’s latest effort a gravitas that is nonetheless gentle as an embrace, and never truly melancholy. Indeed, she has even further matured as a musician and, it would appear, as a spiritual seeker in the past decade.
Though An Ancient Muse‘s tone is somewhat different from McKennitt’s previous work, its nine tracks are just as geographically and stylistically eclectic as ever — a quality that fits the international nature of her research for the album. An Ancient Muse begins strongly with “Incantation”, a near-wordless instrumental with Greek and Turkish drones and percussion inspired, according to the liner notes, by the Oracle at Delphi and the poetry of Rumi. While The Book of Secrets and The Mask and the Mirror had their musical roots largely in the Caucasus Mountains and Spain, respectively, the heart of An Ancient Muse lies primarily in the Mediterranean. The influence of Turkish, Middle Eastern and Greek culture and music is especially strong in “The Gates of Istanbul”, “Beneath a Phrygian Sky” and “Never-ending Road (Amhran Duit)” — all songs that discuss quests and searches for love, for the divine and for that most illusive of human concepts, home. This group of songs also includes McKennitt’s haunting tribute to Homer’s Odyssey — “Penelope’s Song”, a modern heroide about longing and the pain of separation.
The most memorable tracks of An Ancient Muse are “The English Ladye and the Knight” and “Caravanserai”. The first of these — the album’s only song with a noticeable Celtic sound — is a truly breathtaking rendition of a Sir Walter Scott poem. The second (and coincidently the part of my CD that will wear out the fastest) may well be the single that wins McKennitt as many awards, nominations and top 20 slots as 1997’s “The Mummer’s Dance” did. With its lonely Spanish guitars and its slow build from a near whisper to the throb of drums, it perfectly mimics the long journey through the desert of which McKennitt sings. The song’s lyrics are also some of the most pointed and poignant she has ever written; “This glancing life is like a morning star — A setting sun, or rolling waves at sea, a gentle breeze or lightning in a storm — A dancing dream of all eternity.”
Though not included in the original release, two additional tracks for An Ancient Muse exist, of which any lover of good music, not just completists, should avail themselves if possible. The first, “Raglan Road” (after the Patrick Kavanagh poem) is a previously unreleased treasure recorded in 1991. Though a much earlier piece, its sorrowful take on the fragility of human love fits perfectly within the scope of An Ancient Muse — also, it’s always lovely to hear McKennitt’s voice with minimal accompaniment (in this case just a piano). Sadly, for those who do not wish to buy music online or from a large company, the additional track is only available through Barnes & Noble. The second track, a remix of “Never-ending Road” is available exclusively through iTunes. Unfortunately, a clunky dial-up connection does not permit me to purchase the track at this time, but I can safely say that any excuse to get another McKennitt track should be leaped upon.
Loreena McKennitt is a remarkably talented musician, whose music can soothe and comfort other lonely pilgrims through life’s most difficult journeys. Perhaps more importantly, she is also an insightful and truly kind human being, and her deep understanding of the human condition and her generosity of spirit shine through in An Ancient Muse as they do in all of her work. I cannot recommend this CD highly enough, and I hope that as surely as winter will end soon, that we will have another of her recordings in due time.
(Quinlan Road, 2006)