The amount I love music is sometimes overwhelming. I want it pretty much everywhere, all the time. Given that, I have a pretty weird relationship with seeing and hearing it live. I’ve never been to a festival, I can’t reel off an impressive list of all the acts I’ve seen or all the iconic venues I have been to. And more often than not, when I’m at a concert I can spend the entire experience struggling to really get into it, to let myself enjoy that particular type of experience, that moment. There’s that classic thing of being afraid to let go in a room full of strangers. It’s some depressingly standard masculine fragility: a fear of being laughed at, of looking ridiculous. It’s also a dislike of large crowds, some nervousness that it won’t be perfect, or perfect-enough. And there’s a dislike of other people, a regrettable snobbishness that other concertgoers won’t give sufficient hushed reverence to the moment. It’s nothing to be proud of; I’m a work in progress….
But here we have Lisa Hannigan, performing live with an orchestra (stargaze) during 2018 and specifically performances captured at Dublin’s National Concert Hall last October. I don’t know whether or not it’s perfection when put next to the source material; I haven’t listened to it in order to write this (although I’ve certainly encountered her work before, and enjoyed it). The only firm reference point I have is a session she recorded for Daytrotter back in 2009 and I already judge all versions of ‘Lille’ on that…. Given my ‘issues’ I’m not going to compromise this review with exhaustive comparisons. Sure, you’ll miss out on whether or not something startling and new has been done; but by the same token, you won’t get dragged down by my baggage. It’s a fair deal. And besides which, surely this has to stand or fall on its own merits, too ?
That there’s an orchestra means that some of Lisa Hannigan the instrumentalist is lost to us: sure stargaze add drama and lushness, but it seems to me that we lose some of the delicacy with which Hannigan writes. One of the joys of music is hearing new things over time; when there is less space and less silence the subtlety and the secrecy are sacrificed.
That said, stargaze hit their straps in the threat and menace they bring to new song ‘Bookmark’; the swell of brass that augments ‘Prayer for the Dying’ and the thrilling sense of chase in ‘Lo’. They also show how to come and go on album highlight ‘We The Drowned’: chills down the spine as the strings slide sickeningly during the opening; all-but-disappearing immediately afterwards only to return to add suffocating weight to such a powerful, atmospheric song. My only quibble is that here, Lisa Hannigan shows such strength and suppleness of voice that it makes you wish she would unleash it more often.
Elsewhere there is a solid take on the aforementioned ‘Lille’ (you’ll be singing that refrain under your breath for days), and the brief, beautiful rush of the a cappella ‘Anahorish’. There’s a lovely coda to ‘Swan’, which has trailed the album, featuring a luscious layering of voices. But ultimately I guess what jarred with me was the fact that for all the sweetness and the melancholy and the stately drama, that’s not what is happening around us, that’s not what I need from music right now. I don’t only want anger, or grief, or joy, or exhilaration, but I do need contrast. Whatever my problems with live music, I definitely want to be shook up. In part that’s just because the light and shade makes it interesting and invigorating. But it’s also because right now the world is facing a horrific backlash, a violent attempt to roll back the rights that have been so hard won for LGBT people, women, people of colour. That should fill us with rage and the desire to act; I’m angry. And on top of that, the climate is going to shit and political and business leaders don’t seem to be keen to hurry up necessary changes; I’m terrified. And in the face of all those things, I need a celebration of what is good and beautiful, what we are fighting for. I need more.
It’s out on 31 May.