Irish singer Susan McKeown is a talented vocalist who has recorded a number of decent albums, which makes her newest blunder bewildering. Singing in the Dark is a concept album, and the concept is madness. McKeown has chosen poems written about madness and set them to music. Given that the poems are the work of such luminaries as Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke and Leonard Cohen, this seems like a foolproof idea. Powerful subject + impeccable lyrics + compelling musical treatment = a killer record, right?
Alas no. If we assume that the subject is powerful and the lyrics are impeccable—I’m willing to do both—we must lay the blame for this fiasco at the feet of the singer and her arrangements. Maybe McKeown is trying too hard to avoid the obvious, which in this case would be a dark and claustrophobic record, something tense and intense. Moody, you know? Instead, we get the lilting “In a Dark Time”, the trotting country-esque rhythm of “The Nameless One” and the loose jazzy inflections of “The Crack in the Stairs” and “The Crazy Woman.” McKeown’s desire to avoid stigmatizing mental illness as depressing and grim may be laudable, but in my experience which includes 10 years as a mental health caseworker, mental illness is usually depressing and grim. The juxtaposition of Hayden Carruth’s achingly plaintive lyrics and McKeown’s chirpy treatment in “Good Old World Blues” is nothing short of bizarre.
Not everything is disastrous, however. Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” is satisfyingly wistful, and “A Woman Like That (Her Kind)” manages to transform Anne Sexton’s poem into a song that carries some emotional heft, but such moments on this record are a rarity.
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