Lisa Gerrard: The Best of Lisa Gerrard

[7 November 2007]

By Mike Schiller

The tendency of an artist gone solo, free from whatever shackles membership in a collective “band” introduces, is to look upon those days with that band with something like disdain. Those are years never to be relived, years during which that artist could have been making the sort of mind-breaking stuff that recent days have brought. Even if they won’t come out and say it, one gets the sense that, say, Ben Folds felt somehow limited in his days with the Five, that Natalie Merchant could never have been one of 10,000 forever, that Timberlake never would have found the sort of groove that he’s in now as a member of N*SYNC. Lisa Gerrard, it seems, is the exception. As one of the duo that comprises the highly revered atmospheric outfit Dead Can Dance, Gerrard seems content and pleased by her past. She put together the track list for The Best of Lisa Gerrard, and not only does she acknowledge her days in Dead Can Dance, she goes so far as to highlight them.

Indeed, more than half of The Best of Lisa Gerrard is made up of Dead Can Dance tracks. There is only one song (“Swans”) exclusive to a non-soundtrack solo album. And yet, the most represented album on the collection is the Gladiator soundtrack, from which three of the disc’s 15 tracks are culled, including the opener and closer. It’s as if Gerrard is saying “Wow, I did a fantastic job with Gladiator, but gosh, remember when I was in Dead Can Dance? That stuff was awesome.”

Or, possibly, she simply has an audience in mind for The Best of Lisa Gerrard. This is the audience who has heard and is familiar with her soundtrack work, and simply wants to know what else she’s done. On further rumination, this is the more likely scenario.

Gerrard has achieved her greatest fame by never saying a word. Rather, she sings in tongues, a habit formed and nurtured in the early days of Dead Can Dance, continuing through to her present-day solo and soundtrack work. It’s a technique that allows her voice to join the chorus of synths, organs, strings, and (why not) dulcimer, basically, any instrument that can play a note for a very long time, without the words that could potentially distract from that chorus. This one-of-the-instruments technique becomes most obvious when Gerrard is herself singing long, extended notes, an ethereal, angelic voice soaring over the top of the proceedings, as on “The Host of Seraphim”, the opening track to Dead Can Dance’s 1988 release Serpent’s Egg. It’s something she has actually managed to perfect in more recent years, as she shows in the Ali soundtrack’s “See the Sun”. Oddly, she accomplishes this in the latter tracks even as she lapses into real words, occasionally singing the title of the song.

While these tracks are pretty, however, Gerrard shows in other places that she can lend this technique a lyrical quality that just about doubles the intensity of whatever song it appears on. “Swans” is a solo standout, on which Dimitry Kyryakou provides an incredible, almost dance-like bouzouki backdrop that sets the song far apart from the Dead Can Dance material and the soundtrack contributions. Gerrard reciprocates with a vocal line that sounds like a narrative except for the fact that there are no words. Even without the words, however, we can hear her story slowly increase in intensity, lull, climax, and slowly fade, mindful of the repercussions of the events that precede that fade. It’s an all-encompassing sort of story arc, allowing us the opportunity to provide our own words to the music. She could be singing about a tale of good vs. evil, or she could be singing about the migration patterns of the swallow; we don’t know, and the track is strengthened for that.

Of all the songs on The Best of Lisa Gerrard, “Indus” best represents the balance struck between Dead Can Dance and Gerrard’s subsequent solo career. Extended to the breaking point with a perfectly constant beat, it ebbs and flows at will. Tension marks the first few minutes, but it soon settles into a perfectly beautiful groove as Gerrard and Dead Can Dance co-conspirator Brendan Perry harmonize on a particularly memorable bit of glossolalia. The easily identifiable beat marks it as a Dead Can Dance track, but the music is cinematic in both scope and execution. Clearly, someone in Dead Can Dance was headed toward soundtracks. It just turns out that it was Gerrard.

And thank goodness for that. Not that Brendan Perry wouldn’t have been a wonderful sound track producer, indeed, he’s actually done a couple of soundtracks for some small films, but Gerrard’s work is consistently beautiful, and occasionally transcendent. Even in its eschewing of the chronological approach to a career retrospective, The Best of Lisa Gerrard beautifully chronicles her development into the wise and weathered but no less beautiful performer that she is today. Best of all, its one-disc format keeps it from feeling overlong, even at over 70 minutes. Whether you’re a 20-years-removed fan of Dead Can Dance or just a lover of film music, The Best of Lisa Gerrard is a wonderful, well-developed portrait of an extraordinary artist.

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