Loreena McKennitt, An Ancient Muse (Quinlan Road, 2006)

Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt began her musical career in the late eighties performing almost exclusively Celtic music, but through the early nineties her sound evolved by incorporating many influences from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Her career hit a peak in 1997 when her album The Book Of Secrets spawned an unlikely hit single in "The Mummers' Dance," but abruptly derailed when her fiancé died tragically in a boating accident the following year. McKennitt took her time to restore herself both emotionally and creatively, and after nine years she has re-emerged with a new album called An Ancient Muse.

An Ancient Muse picks up sonically right where The Book Of Secrets left off. Celtic fiddles, uillean pipes, and harps dance above ouds, tablas,Turkish clarinets, and hurdy-gurdys. As usual, the combinations of European and Asian musical traditions, and of ancient, Medieval and modern instruments and sounds, fit together perfectly naturally in McKennitt's work. The creative process for most of her albums begins with a voyage of exploration into some aspect of Celtic tradition, and An Ancient Muse finds McKennit traveling from Mongolia, where the nomadic Celts originated, across the Silk Road through the Middle East into Turkey and Greece, where the Celts first crossed into Europe. McKennitt usually augments her own lyrics with an adaptation of a poem at some point on her albums, and does so again here with Sir Walter Scott's "The English Ladye And The Knight." This poem is tragic, because the knight is Scottish, and the lady's brother did not approve the relationship.

One significant difference separates An Ancient Muse from McKennitt's previous efforts, though. Her willingness to combine musical traditions and celebrate their common ground has always had social and political implications, but up to this point McKennitt had let her music do the talking where contemporary politics was concerned. Here though, she lets the shadow of the many conflicts currently plaguing the Middle East guide the lyrics. In particular, the penultimate song "Beneath A Phyrgian Sky" laments the waste of human life, especially in the name of God, and calls on those who believe in love instead of war to stand strong at this moment in history.

Like McKennitt's previous efforts, An Ancient Muse has a couple of standout tracks. The best pieces here are the song "Caravanserai," about humanity's nomadic impulse, and the instrumental "Kecharitomene," whose title comes from an ancient Byzantine convent. The remaining music is still good, but doesn't really distinguish itself from the bulk of the material on her previous three albums The Visit, The Mask And The Mirror, and The Book Of Secrets. Still, McKennitt has made an excellent career out of undertaking fascinating physical, spiritual, and historical journeys and inviting the listener to experience the results. An Ancient Muse is a welcome addition, holding up to her best prior work. It is certainly good to have Loreena McKennitt back.

Overall grade: A-

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1 comment:

Scarlet119 said...

Thanks for reviewing this--can't wait to get it!