Among the many things Aoife O’Donovan has mastered with her new solo album, Age of Apathy, one is the strong opening. I loved the opening of her prior solo album, In the Magic Hour. “Stanley Park” pulled us through her thoughts and observations in a dramatic swell along a coast. “Sister Starling” is even better. As she describes caring for someone in need, a complicated friendship born, an old wound, and an end that years later still haunts, her voice flows through the melody she designed, digging in and drawing out all of the sadness and lament she feels. It is a beautiful song.
At the time of her last solo album, released in 2016, O’Donovan was already a seasoned singer/songwriter, with 6 full-length studio albums behind her. Age of Apathy shows how much she has grown as an artist in the intervening 6 years. She is a prolific creator. She contributed the song “Are You There” to the film “What They Had.” With Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins she co-founded the folk super-trio I’m With Her and released a full-album. With the same group, she won a Grammy for the single release “Call My Name.” She added her voice to two tracks on the Goat Rodeo Sessions follow-up album. She also recorded and released the Bull Frogs Croon (and Other Songs) EP that included an excellent original suite based on the poetry of Peter Sears.
In the depths of the pandemic, she recorded prodigiously, using her home to present livestream concerts, that she later released as intimate albums. An Evening of Songs Performed at Home came from a benefit livestream on April 25, 2020. It showcased solo versions of some of her best originals and covers, accompanied with strings by husband Eric Jacobsen and brother-in-law Colin Jacobsen, sprinkled with a couple classical gems from the brothers.
Aoife Plays Nebraska is the recording from another livestream performed on May 9, 2020. She delivered an acoustic solo performance of the entire Springsteen Nebraska album from beginning to end. The concert was even broadcast in black and white to honor the starkness of this minor Boss Masterpiece. She rounded out the releases with numerous collaborations with artists like The Milk Carton Boys and Taylor Ashton. Music is clearly a fluid that she needs to constantly circulate through her being.
Out of this continuing pandemic now emerge eleven new songs, eleven wonderful gems that together deliver a clear vision of the depth of her musical artistry. Put simply, this is the Aoife O’Donovan album I’ve been waiting for since I first heard her sing “Fish and Bird” on a Noam Pikelny album. These songs take us on various journeys, some sorrowful and dark, some playful reminiscences, and others surprisingly upbeat. All take the major models of American music— blues, folk, country, rock, and jazz— and seamlessly play to create memorable, pleasing, and sometimes haunting works.
Her voice can convey a stunning amount of pure and piercing sorrow. On B61, she reaches a new depth. You listen to the opening line of B61, “He had time on his hands/carried the world on his shoulders,” and feel your shoulders slump. The title track is a lament for a past love. Against the backdrop of New England in the early 2000’s, she sings of a carefree love, full of road trip adventures. The relationship changed with maturity and was tested. I enjoyed the nod to 9/11 as a signpost seared in memory. It eerily echoed my own life in those years.
Her compositions separate themselves from the straight personal introspection of the stereotypical (and all too typical) folk artist. Aoife is inventive. She pulls from a variety of sources, including shards of memories, poetry, recurring motifs, nature, places. “Galahad” is inspired by the Tennyson poem “Sir Galahad.” “Age of Apathy” references Pearl Jam and Joni Mitchell songs. A recurring theme reflects one of the most potent losses during the pandemic— the inability to travel, the loss of freedom to move in space. “B61” refers to a bus line. She sings of places remembered, of festivals and highways traveled in decades past. The songs beautifully capture some of what we’ve lost, a time capsule of grief for the pain, disruption and uncertainty inflicted by this pandemic. Where other artists seem to engage in prematurely heralding the end of our collective isolation, though, O’Donovan emerges as the more accurate sage. We are still in its throes. Even “Phoenix,” a song about rising from the ashes, declares “I’m ready now.” The flight has not yet taken place; she’s impatient to take off.
“Prodigal Daughter” is more straight-ahead Americana. It’s an effective vessel for this subtle duet between O’Donovan and Allison Russell. With both being such longtime veterans of the folk and Americana stage, I’m so grateful that they made this music together. And before you complain that Russell should be more prominent, remember that this was recorded during a pandemic. The parts of each song were recorded separately, then constructed into these complete songs. Also, Russell delivers great backup vocals on “Elevators”.
It is not all lament and gloom. Her most uptempo solo song to date, “Passengers”, shakes off the introspection of folk and the solemnity of blues to take flight. With its mix of celestial imagery, it reminds me of how she ended her earlier solo album, “Jupiter”. Where that song was jazzy and contemplative, though, this is a romp about celebrating the day we can get out and hit the road again.
Age of Apathy is a bold reassertion of the importance of the album as art. I implore you to honor its beauty by enjoying it as a complete work, not as part of something inserted intermittently into your stream. I further implore you to order the double-CD, featuring solo acoustic visions of most of the songs. Her interpretations, before the layers are added, show her songwriting strength. Even as skeletons they are powerful and deep. Granted, her evocative voice adds muscle and sensual tissue to the bones that most singers only hope they could create.