Storyteller is a word you’ll often find ascribed to Lisa O’Neill. The folk singer-songwriter has built a strong reputation in her native Ireland and abroad for her witty and poignant observations of lives lived and loves lost, all told by a truly unique voice. On her latest record, O’Neill turns the attention to herself with what might be her most personal collection of songs yet.
All of This Is Chance sees O’Neill become more of a protagonist of her songs than an observer. While her previous work, Heard a Long Gone Song, was rightly praised for its evocative renditions of people, tradition, work, and life, this is more concerned with how its author relates to the world. As the title suggests, these questions are not to be addressed without a degree of world-weary cynicism. There is melancholy here but wonder too. Love, death, family, home, religion, and even the enormity of the universe are not new topics for the folk singer, but here they appear more personally realized, revealing vulnerabilities and emotionality that are at once recognizable, stirring, and occasionally profound.
“I am frightened of dying… I am frightened of living,” O’Neill sings on the opening title track. Taking inspiration from Patrick Kavanagh’s epic “The Great Hunger”, O’Neill seems to ask questions not only of life and death but herself, her upbringing, her relationships, and the world around her. She contemplates unconditional love and the teachings of mother to daughter on banjo-picked “Silver Seed”, loss of innocence on gentle “The Globe”, sin and divine design on “If I Was a Painter”, or inner turmoil, guilt, and mortality on the epic “Whisht, The Wild Workings of the Mind”.
It’s not possible to talk about Lisa O’Neill without mentioning her voice. Raw yet arresting, it can pull at the heart and transport one to different worlds, sounding both timeless yet contemporary and unmistakably Irish, not only by accent but by power and depth of feeling. “I don’t even see myself as a musician, but a singer,” she once remarked in a recent interview with The Oxford Student, and given how crucial and inimitable her voice is, it’s not hard to see why.
Despite this, there is much to enjoy on All of This Is Chance as far as the musicianship is concerned. The guitar and banjo are still very much present. However, the range of instruments and textures has expanded, notably with string sections that can provide an ominous drone or soar, bringing grandiosity and heart-wrenching catharsis to standouts “Old Note” and the aforementioned “Whisht, The Wild Workings of the Mind”.
The only slight criticism that can be made of All of This Is Chance is that some of the songs, like “Birdy From Another Realm”, feel like the well-trodden ground in the artist’s oeuvre. This can be a little jarring when set against the more creatively and emotionally ambitious tunes and, while perfectly pleasant, could stand in the way of the project as a cohesive experience.
All of This Is Chance is nonetheless a beautiful and bold album that showcases an artist unafraid to develop her sound further, revealing more of herself in the process. A hugely rewarding exploration of personhood and the big questions of existence, it’s brilliant, progressive folk that looks into the heart and out into the universe.