The recent pandemic caused Irish American singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan to create her latest album, Age of Apathy, differently than she had before. Instead of being in the same studio with her producer and fellow musicians and getting things done quickly, the difficulties of the new circumstances required her to keep her distance from others. It allowed her to spend more time making the record. O’Donovan recorded her voice, guitars, and piano in a Florida studio and then dispatched the results to producer Joe Henry (Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Betty LaVette) in Maine. He then employed studio musicians to flesh out the songs (with lots of back and forth).
Making the record took about a year and provided them with the luxury of arranging and rearranging the material. The final results are lushly layered and sophisticated. O’Donovan is often considered a singer-songwriter and folkie, but this release finds her music hard to pigeonhole as its connections to contemporary jazz and even classical music are clearly evident.
The primary theme of Age of Apathy concerns our human need for connection in a cold, cold world. Although the central reference of the title song has to do with the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11, the songs seem to emerge from our present condition, specifically our isolation, thanks to COVID’s impact.
Consider the relationship between mother and child on “Prodigal Daughter”. It’s a purposely timeless take on the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son. The son is welcomed home by the father after a profligate adventure in the original. This version (co-written with Tim O’Brien) features the daughter being rejected by her mother even though she is desperate to return and has her own child. The narrator tells the tale in the third person. She is neither explicitly sympathetic nor judgmental. The daughter goes like a lamb to the slaughter. The mother leaves the daughter to drown in her pain. Life is harsh. There’s no explanation for this behavior—why the daughter had to leave, come back, and is forced to go. Like COVID, it’s just the way things are. A merciful God never enters the picture.
This darkness repeatedly emerges songs’ lyrics, such as “What Do You Want From Yourself” and “Town of Mercy”. It’s musically expressed in the snakelike slithering of a flute solo or the discordancy of a piano solo. The album is not depressing as misery loves company. The overall effect is soothing even when the subject is not.
While COVID is not explicitly mentioned, “Phoenix” addresses having a fever as a metaphor for rising after the failure of a love relationship and moving on. The protagonist may proclaim she’s over it, but the listener isn’t so sure. The singer sounds less than triumphant. There’s a haunting quality to the track as if claiming control isn’t the same as being in control—but who is in control is unclear. Things happen for no reason.
The two loveliest songs are “B61” and the title track. “B61” refers to the bus line the narrator took to her lover’s apartment. Her pleasure at getting together is clear, but the story is told in reflection. She sings, “Love is a daily good thing / I see it in your smolder / But I can’t feel it in my hands / And I’m wringing them more now I’m older.” She may be older but no wiser. The same is true of the song “Age of Anxiety”. The tale of a love that has grown cold captures the joy they once shared and wonders what happened. O’Donovan quotes Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man” in the lyrics, a song about being in love and feeling free. But here it ends with the lonesome blues.
The 11 tracks do not follow any particular design and often seem to purposely wander off what seems to be the main melody and just run out. These aren’t songs one can sing along to as much as trace to see where they are headed, knowing it will be nowhere one expected. Perhaps we should be anxious, but O’Donovan advises us that it doesn’t really matter how one feels. But of course, it does. She’s not being ironic as much as presenting a false front.