[5 July 2006]
Once you’ve seen a lone Irishman infuse Prince’s “When Doves Cry” with new fire, armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, a sweet tenor voice, and a spark in his eyes, becoming a fan is inevitable. Truth be told, by the time of that 1994 tour, I was already quite enamored of the music of Luka Bloom. Born Barry Moore, he’s the younger brother of famed Celtic folk-rocker Christy Moore. In order to step out of the shadow of his older sibling, the junior Moore adopted a new name based on the title character from Suzanne Vega’s classic 1987 single and the last name of Molly from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Odd, I know. This new persona was adopted on the plane ride from Ireland to the U.S., where he was discovered in the late 1980s, playing a club gig. As I was saying, Luka Bloom is a very charismatic performer.
He’s also made some very fine studio albums. His string of three albums for Reprise in the first half of last decade are all quite strong, from the often boisterous Riverside (1990) to the loose and varied Acoustic Motorbike (1992) to the beautiful, elegiac, and grief-mending Turf (1994). He was on a great roll before the major label belt-tightenings of the latter half of the ‘90s cast Luka adrift, contractless. It would be five years before he returned with A Salty Heaven, an album not quite good enough to reinvigorate my enthusiasm. Half a decade had been a long wait, and I suppose my tastes were geared toward other flavors at that time. Fortunately, not too long ago, I decided to see what ol’ Luka had been up to in the years since we parted ways. While his discography here in the 2000s hasn’t offered any huge surprises, his work has been consistently strong. And now, with even more time passed, I’ll admit to succumbing to a bit of the comfort of nostalgia when I listen to his recent works.
In my defense, Luka Bloom’s is a very comfortable sound. It is warm without being empty and cheery. His brand of comfort isn’t lying in the grass on a sunny day or curling up in a rocking chair with a cup of tea. Bloom’s is the comfort of isolated reflection, like walking through a brisk afternoon down to a quiet pub, ordering a pint of beer, sitting at a table by the window, and stringing together memories, histories, and thoughts of passersby.
This pensive quality is immediately apparent on Luka Bloom’s new album, Innocence. There he is on the cover, lost in ruminations. That photo offers an accurate projection of the mood that underscores this CD. Almost all of Luka’s music is hemmed by melancholy, aside from a few outbursts of goofy, manic joy. However, those moments—songs like “Delirious,” “An Irishman in Chinatown,” or his cover of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love”—are from his past. Innocence, as may first seem ironic, is tinged with a lovely world-weariness, through and through. The whole of the album is summarized well by these lyrics from the title track: “I still love the smell / of the innocent years / And I choose innocence / After my tears”. Bittersweet remembrance and longing for a purity lost are made explicit in those words, but the same feeling resides throughout. This is apparent even in the pretty instrumental “Peace on Earth,” where Bloom’s sighing guitar line is augmented (as are a handful of other tracks) by the quiet thrums of a double-bass and some very understated soprano sax playing (and, unless that instrument is being played by John Coltrane or Branford Marsalis, understatedness is the ideal approach). What idea could seem more remote, more innocent, perhaps, or naïve, than world peace? Still, this is the ideal that the gentle soul of Luka Bloom earnestly reaches toward. That he’s not a dopey optimist allows a song like this to hit home. Elsewhere on the album, Bloom offers us wonderful miniaturized stories of Salvadorans wishing for someone’s return from Brazil, a girl walking along the beach in Fanore, and Irish immigrants in nineteenth century Chicago, dreaming of a homeland before the famine.
In case I’ve led you to believe that the mood of this album is monochromatically blue, it does contain its share of major-keyed tunes. Although they’re all performed with the same mellow spareness as the disc’s more meditative numbers, they add a nice balance in tone to the record. The addition of fiddle and light percussion to a few tracks also aids in serving up just enough variety to keep the listener’s ear attentive. These little changes in instrumentation and subtle shifts in mood never break the album’s flow; rather, they give contour to the experience. And Luka Bloom’s Innocence is a very fine experience, indeed.