My my, Maria McKee, how you’ve grown. From the rough, tough barroom belter of Lone Justice to the measured, considered Diva of La Vita Nuova only took 38 years. Thirty-eight years of absorbing music, changes of fortune, and immense personal growth. She displays all of these factors on her new record with grace and confidence.
La Vita Nuova has the depth worthy of a project that was inspired by Dante’s 1293 treatise on unrequited love. The lyrics are dense and full of unusual imagery. Compare “Once heady in the Pentecost / With tongues unknown and full of praise / Then one day all of that was lost / Now I’m a drone bereft of faith” from the title track of this album to “Tell me what I did to you babe / That would make you act like that” from “Ways to be Wicked”, from the debut Lone Justice record, to get a sense of how far she’s come. There are lines on the album that sound a little like she’s trying a bit too hard – on “Let Me Forget”, she sings, “Improbable my muse / Confounding and persistent, with such sobbing and refusals.” It’s a line that seems to come from the libretto of Rigoletto, and not from a “pop” album. She makes it sound pretty good, though.
McKee’s voice remains a thing of beauty. The grit in her vocal delivery, which characterized a lot of her early work, has been replaced by crystal clear annunciation – every syllable beautifully delivered. Early comparisons to Janis Joplin, now seem bizarre, and the Maria McKee of La Vita Nuova is closer to Barbra Streisand and (whisper it) Celine Dion than to a typical rock singer. On “Right Down to the Heart of London”, she displays a vocal range that would leave many of her peers breathless. Literally.
Many of the pieces on La Vita Nuova are beautifully orchestrated by McKee, despite her neither reading music or having any classical training. These arrangements are integral to the songs and not just haphazardly applied to add gravitas. A 19-piece orchestra weaves deftly around McKee, slowly uncurling melodies in a very satisfying way.
McKee now lives in London, and there’s a strong sense of the British Isles in this record. There’s a folk influence which creeps into many songs on La Vita Nouva, and at times she seems to be channeling Sandy Denny. “Page of Cups” would have sat very nicely on Fairport Convention’s breakthrough folk-rock album Liege and Lief and “Ceann Bro” echoes “She Moves Through the Fair” and adds an Irish sensibility into the mix. On this tune, McKee’s arrangement is outstanding – sympathetic to the melody and never overpowering.
If you’re looking for something slightly more contemporary, there’s a Laura Nyro feel to “The Last Boy”, which pulls the record slightly closer to the 21st century. If you’ve ever wondered what Sandy Denny would sound like if she sang an Aimee Mann tune, well “I Just Want to Know That You’re Alright” should satisfy your curiosity.
In 2020, we might think we’ve heard it all. All the harmonic chord progressions have been used up, and all the hybrid strains of music have been explored. La Vita Nuova pulls together some pretty disparate genres of music and combines them in a very pleasing way. Chamber strings augment folk melodies. Torch songs are re-imagined as child ballads. Fortunately, McKee’s voice manages to knit all these strands together, and the record stops well short of being a hot, sprawling mess. It sounds cohesive and fresh – maybe being 300 years out of date is as cutting edge as we’re going to get this year.