Album Review

Aoife O’Donovan – Age Of Apathy: Album Review

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, Aoife Donovan, shares her lifetime journey on Age Of Apathy.

Release Date:  21st January 2022

Label: Yep Roc Records

Formats: Vinyl / Digital

Described by The New York Times as “A vocalist of unerring instinct,” Irish/American singer/songwriter, Aoife O’Donovan has a mightily impressive CV.  She’s probably best known as the vocalist in folk experimentalists Crooked Still, but there’s a lot more to her than that!  For a start, she, along with her trio – I’m With Her – nabbed a Grammy award for Best American Roots Song in 2020 with their single, Call My Name.  She’s also performed with numerous orchestras, including The National Symphony Orchestra and The Orlando Symphony Orchestra (for whom, incidentally, her husband Eric is a regular conductor) and she’s featured as a member of jazz outfit The Dave Douglas Quintet. That’s before we get to the extensive list of acclaimed musicians with whom she’s collaborated – Jim Lauderdale, Edgar Meyer and Christina Courtin amongst them.

And that’s not all.  Aoife’s songs have featured in films and on television and, in 2011, Alison Krauss included Aoife’s song, Lay My Burden Down, on her Paper Airplane album.  We are, without doubt, dealing with a significant and highly respected talent here.

Aoife was born in Boston, Mass, and has recently been splitting her time between her apartment in Brooklyn and the paradise she’s discovered in Central Florida.  Indeed, it was her relocation to Florida in September 2020 that provided the impetus and inspiration for the songs on Age Of Apathy. She reveled in the time and space of her new location to “…craft an album away from a packed performing schedule and the rigours of the road.”  Before the move, Aoife freely admits that writing had been a struggle, but the new surroundings allowed her to “…enter into a creative period unlike anything else I’d ever done.”

And the result is a striking album, Aoife’s first in six years, that’s packed with songs that I’d describe, variously, as reflective, sophisticated, intimate, gentle and reassuring.  The songs trace a journey through Aoife’s adult life – but it’s clear that the experiences she recalls and the questions she asks herself apply to any of us on that same journey – and culminate with the question: “What do you want from yourself?”

The sound is folky with a strong layer of jazz, vulnerable and Joni Mitchell-shaded at one extreme and sophisticated with flavourings of Laura Nyro at the other, The instrumentation is sparse, yet highly effective – predominantly acoustic with guitar, piano, mandolin and flute all playing their part, and the subtlest percussion that you’ll EVER hear!  And, despite her previous achievements, Aoife feels strongly that Age Of Apathy represents a real personal breakthrough.  As she says: “I love singing and performing so much that I’ve never really considered myself a songwriter in the same way that some people do, but I’m really proud of these songs and the experience of writing them has really given me a new confidence.  Make no mistake – that pride is fully justified.  Age Of Apathy is an excellent album.

The recipe is clear from the outset.  Opening track Sister Starling shows all the characteristics that I’ve already described – the sparse yet dramatic instrumentation, the intimate vocals and the comforting blend of folk and jazz are all there – and the appetite is firmly whetted for the treats to come. 

Aoife has served a fair bit of notice for the launch of Age Of Apathy and several of the album’s tracks have already been given an airing, amongst them, the piano/guitar ballad, B61.  Named after a bar/restaurant in Brooklyn, B61 came together in Aoife’s nearby apartment during lockdown and muses on the district’s bars and riverfront venues that she was missing.  The spirit of Court And Spark-era Joni Mitchell is alive and well in Phoenix, a song in which Aoife celebrates the return of her muse following her move to Florida.  Soft percussion provides the drive for a gentle, enjoyable foot-tapper of a song.

For Age Of Apathy, the album’s title track, Aoife references 9/11 – the moment that she (along with, as she acknowledges, so many others of her generation) felt her adulthood begin.  Lazy electric guitar provides the accompaniment as Aoife ponders the impact of the deluge of information that the digital age has cascaded upon us all since that fateful day, all to a tune that is wonderfully soft, jazzy and dreamy.

The album reaches what is described as its turning point with Elevators.  Aoife considers the emptiness of existence and the apparent absence of any real future for her, or for America, whilst electric and acoustic guitars play along.  But the desperation doesn’t last, and a positive note starts to emerge, as the life journey continues.  Aoife sings some beautiful harmony vocals with guest Allison Russell and, with its acoustic guitar and mandolin accompaniment, the optimistic-sounding Prodigal Daughter is probably the closest thing to a conventional folk song on the album.

The hopeful, positive feel is continued with the delightful Galahad, a jazzy, intimate song that is illuminated by some well-placed sprinkles of electric guitar and Town Of Mercy provides another welcome helping of reflective sophistication.  The sultry Lucky Star is the album’s most electric track. It’s another song that was born from the frustrations of lockdown and the scattered, electronic opening section seems to express the confusion and frustration we all felt during those days when the pandemic was at its debilitating, restrictive peak.  It’s a great track that slots perfectly into the mood of the album – a slice of the gentlest grunge you’ll ever hear.

The life journey we’ve been traveling arrives at its defining point with What Do You Want From Yourself? – a song of self-examination and self-determination.  As Aoife reflects that she’s 37 years old now, and that in 33 more years she’ll be an old woman. Having been asked what she wants from her life, she realizes that “I want to be what I wanted to be in 1993,” and we’re all reminded that, whilst our ultimate life destination is in our own hands, the passage of time is relentless and won’t wait for us if we don’t act.  Possibly the most challenging and rewarding song on an album crammed with challenges and rewards, What Do You Want From Yourself is peppered with wonderful embellishments from guitar, piano and flute, and provides the note finality that makes Aoife’s journey complete.  All that’s left then is one last song to send us all on our way – a role that’s fulfilled wonderfully by the joyful calypso-flavoured Passengers – a light-as-air closure to an intriguing, enjoyable album.

Watch the Official video to Phoenix – a track from the album – here:

Aoife O’Donovan: Website / Twitter / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

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