Iarla Ó Lionáird has been the flag-bearer for modern singing as Gaeilge on the world music stage both with Afro Celt Sound System and through his recordings for Real World records. His solo live concerts are intense and moving events often tying in visuals in a similar way to how Sigur Rós made use of Icelandic imagery in their early tours.
This, his third record for Real World in 14 years, is enticing for the guest musicians/producers involved – namely Brian Eno, Leafcutter John and more specifically Jon Hopkins whose sublime, Mercury-nominated work with King Creosote Diamond Mine graced many an end-of-year poll in 2011.
Almost all of the songs on this album are sung in Irish, yet the music is mostly removed from any traditional Irish sound. Elements of folk remain but more in the musical phrasing than in the instruments used. The music is playful and subtle behind Ó Lionáird’s clear vocals and goes from the sunrise-sounds of the opener ‘The Heart Of The World’ to the relatively charming and chirpy ‘The Goat Song’ without making any bold statements, leaving the vocals front and centre.
The tracks that stand out do become the tracks with the more interesting arrangements. ‘Eleanor Plunkett’ is sad and beautiful, and a track that enjoys the moments of pure instrumentation as much as the sung parts and the hallmarks of Hopkins are throughout. But there is an elephant in the room, albeit a difficult one to explain. Try as best as one can to picture how “Icelandic” can sound in relations to some of the beautiful music that comes from that country, it is much harder for an Irish person to take on the Irish language in this context. The language seems to grate against the music and though this is lessened when heard in a room, on headphones it’s hard not to react to it. Trying to justify this feeling is very difficult. Perhaps it is merely something ingrained in a portion of the national psyche that instead of embracing, we (or I specifically) have to some extent pushed against. International listeners may find much more immediate beauty in it, but having knowledge of the language, it’s harder to shake.
This aside, there is a lack of any real remarkable moments on the album. There’s a monotone thread throughout which may be rooted in the music taking a bit too much of a careful approach. There are also moments of sheer middle-of-the-roadness. ‘For The Heavens’ is one such cut, essentially a world music version of AOR.
It is good to know that Irish is living on in a new musical form, with, to some extent, contemporary eyes on the music behind it but Foxlight is not quite what it might have been leaving us to wait for another path of music for our language which might some day click with all of us.