Sinéad O’Connor said she wanted to “sexy up” the traditional songs found on Sean Nós Nua, her debut album for Vanguard Records.
Oh. Kind of like what Talitha MacKenzie did with Solas back in 1994? Where Scottish waulking songs and mouth music got dressed up in modern pop arrangements?
Although Sean Nós Nua translates to “songs in the old style, but new”, the first few tracks of the album don’t reveal much that is “new”. Aside from a very liberal use of echo on an effects processor, the arrangements of such tracks as “Peggy Gordon” and “Lord Franklin” are rather predictable — fiddle, bodhran, tin whistle, acoustic guitars. O’Connor’s understated performances border on lifeless, her trademark whisper containing little fire.
It’s not until “Óró Sé Do Bheatha ´Bhaile” does the album get a kick start, with a dub rhythm navigating the tricky time signatures of the song. As the song’s themes get darker, O’Connor’s voice reclaims its power.
O’Connor inhabits the character of an Irish ex-patriate in America on “Paddy’s Lament” to great effect. “The Moorlough Shore,” with its ticking guitar lick and ethereal embellishments, underscore the cautionary tale O’Connor delivers about impulsiveness and regret.
As the album draws to a close, O’Connor and her house band (which includes traditional Irish stalwarts Donal Lunny, Steve Wickham and Sharon Shannon) unshackle the arrangements to let in more modern influences.
“Báidín Fheilimí”, the only other song in Irish, also gets a similar reggae treatment. “My Lagan Love” incorporates marching drum rolls similar to Madonna’s “Frozen” and features O’Connor’s most passionate performance on the album.
The 11-minute “Lord Baker”, a duet with Christy Moore, ventures into Enya-like minimalism, with Moore and O’Connor trading verses over a warm drone.
Fans of Celtic music may enjoy the respectful balance between tradition and foresight on Sean Nós Nua. Fans of O’Connor, however, may find it difficult to warm up to the album.
The trademark fire of her own music shows up rarely on Sean Nós Nua, and when her voice doesn’t connect emotionally with the songs’ themes, the album gets weighed down.
Depending on your background, this album may be brilliance or it may be lackluster.