At long last, Loreena McKennitt is back with An Ancient Muse, her first studio album in nearly a decade. Thanks to the wonders of technology (iTunes is my babydaddy) I had it pretty much the minute it was released, and have been listening to it almost continuously ever since.
(I am going to assume you are familiar with Loreena's work, as a great many Pagans are; if you're not, well, where the hell have you been?)
Overall it’s a beautiful album, artistically equal to anything Loreena has ever produced. My main complaint isn’t even a complaint so much as an observation: An Ancient Muse is far less energetic than some of her previous work (particularly my favorite, The Mask and Mirror). Individual tracks are phenomenal, but the album as a whole feels more introspective, and is at times a bit slow. Even the intricate instrumentals, which are normally impossible not to dance to, are down-tempo; it’s almost a Middle Eastern chill album.
Compare, for example, the instrumentals "Marco Polo" (The Book of Secrets), "Santiago" (Mask and Mirror) and "Kecharitomene" (An Ancient Muse). All three are similar musically, and heart-stoppingly gorgeous, but the latter never achieves the kind of energy that gets you up out of your seat the way the first two do. Again, this isn’t a criticism, but an example of what’s different about An Ancient Muse. Its sound is far more meditative, with an undertone of hushed yearning.
Stylistically the album doesn’t cover a lot of new ground. Again we have the fantastic Middle-Eastern-Celtic-Meltdown tracks; again we have the soaring vocals; again we have what I consider her weakest songs, the endless traditional storyteller ballads. I always skip those songs in her earlier CDs, and to tell you the truth I’m not sure I even get the point of "The English Ladye and the Knight," except that the old standbys are all there: true love, betrayal, war, and everybody dying in various gruesome ways. Traditional they may be, but these songs are Loreena’s least compelling. I can probably live the rest of my life quite happily without hearing "The Bonny Swans" again.
I’m also a little confused as to why she felt the album needed two versions of "Under Phrygian Skies," a song of ecological and social entreaty that, while gracefully written, suffers under its seemingly-endless nine minute length. The two versions are too much alike to feel like one is a remix, and though the song itself is epic in scale, both arrangements are ponderous and drag a bit on repeated listening.
All of that being said, there’s plenty to faint over in An Ancient Muse. The opening track, "Incantation," carries you away into Loreena’s romantic vision of the past. "The Gates of Istanbul" lulls you into trance almost immediately, and "Kecharitomene" writhes into your hips the way only Loreena’s music can--it is the most danceable track of the CD, with the kind of build to it that harkens back to "All Souls Night."
"Never-Ending Road" is simply arranged but lyrically heartbreaking; "Penelope’s Song" creates a similar lyrical landscape, but its music conveys a deep and aching love that may or may not ever attain fulfillment. Both songs are full of yearning, and as always Loreena’s voice can turn from exalted to intimate in the course of a single line.
Loreena’s poetic imagery shines through in "Caravanserai" and "Gates of Istanbul" especially, transporting you to faraway climes and long-lost moments in time. She does her best storytelling without the need for classic literature; read the liner notes of An Ancient Muse to discover the inspiration for the songs, but listen to the songs themselves for the real stories.
That, I believe, is her greatest strength: Loreena does more than write songs, she creates mystical portals to faraway worlds. Her music is a ship sailing for a distant horizon, her voice an avatar of the Divine, offering a hand to lead us to forgotten shores.
This glancing life is like a morning star
A setting sun, or rolling waves at sea
A gentle breeze or lightning in a storm
A dancing dream of all eternity