[17 April 2009]
The Irish troubadour Luka Bloom made his name on the back of his unpredictable and electrifying live performances—a fact that seems almost hard to believe, listening to the polite and peaceful vision represented on his new record, Eleven Songs. You know the stuff: spare, echoing strings and keys, shuffling brushed drums, occasional flourishes of concertina or xylophone, melodic protestations of love and heartsickness and the impossible beauty of it all. It’s a familiar formula, to be sure, but it’s one that’s been used to great effect by people like Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, John Darnielle, etc. The problem here is that Bloom doesn’t have enough personality to make such formulaic proceedings feel interesting or relevant or new.
It’s all pleasant enough stuff. Bloom’s lovely and supple (if somewhat characterless) voice settles back into the mellow acoustic surroundings, tepidly trying to seduce you or sing you to sleep (in the world of folk-rock balladeers there’s not always a difference). The record’s few strong moments are the ones that take advantage of the singer’s off-handed, casual vibe; “I Love the World I’m In” is undeniable, slithering in on eerie tom-toms and a furtive, snickering bass line. The prosaic lyrics can’t diminish a track this underhandedly atmospheric, and if Bloom spent more of his time trying to hypnotize you with his dreamlike sound, we might have had a good album on our hands. Instead, he relaxes mostly into a half-hearted mid-tempo groove and just lies there, inert.
He can apparently be stirred out of his afternoon nap only in service of some larger social cause, so we get the token rocker “Fire,” a forced, cringe-inducing piece of protest music with laughable lyrics like, “We know that we were lied to for another stupid war”, and “Everybody’s gone online where nothing is real”.
Awful as they are, at least the lines above are startling in their badness—they make you notice them. The rest of Bloom’s words feel cut-and-pasted: portentous and the clichéd, filled with generic pastoral images, inscrutable epigrams, extended metaphors, and more uses of the word “love” than anybody singing love songs should be allowed.
Belittling this album brings me no joy. It feels like Kurt Vonnegut’s description of criticism: donning a full suit of plate-mail to attack an ice cream sundae. If there were ever an innocuous, ingratiating album, undeserving of scorn, Eleven Songs is it—well arranged, earnest, skillfully recorded, pretty, melodic and graceful. Bloom’s talents—his soothing songs, the warmth of the acoustic space they inhabit, his lilting, melodic brogue—are not insignificant, they’re just all very familiar. You need real strength of personality to pull this stuff off. You need to be saying something or struggling with something. You need to be able shake people, to make them hear something besides yet another Irish lullaby. Otherwise you end up like Luka Bloom: shooting for Van Morrison, landing on Damien Rice.