Friday, January 16, 2009

Liam Clancy's Voice

Of the hundreds of albums I heard in 2008, none continues to haunt me like Liam Clancy's The Wheels of Life. And the paradox is that it's not a brilliant album per se: occasional murky production and saccharine arrangements plus superfluous guests* all conspire to detract from it. But transcending all my reservations, and making it an essential purchase, is the sheer quality of Liam Clancy's singing. In these days of Auto-tuned mediocrity, his voice is a precious instrument, full of the joys, fears and foibles of humanity; a golden gift that moves his listeners and causes us to look deep inside ourselves. And surely that is the aim of all artistic endeavour?

I never thought anyone could surpass Kate and Anna McGarrigle's version of Talk To Me of Mendocino but, into a mere four minutes here, Clancy distills a vast universe of emotion. One moment his voice is full of regret, the next it is hushed with resignation; elsewhere it trembles with defiance in the face of mortality. The way he sings those lines about the Rockies will stay with you forever. Even better is his version of Shane McGowan's The Broad Majestic Shannon. Here, the addition of a single extra word transforms what is already a brilliant song into a magnificent elegy, a heartbreaking caoineadh for a great songwriter who has, temporarily I hope, sadly lost his way.

I could go on and on about the greatness of Liam Clancy's singing. Bob Dylan called him "the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life" and, on the evidence of this album, if he had left 'ballad' out of that sentence I don't think he'd have been guilty of gross exaggeration.

*(the one exception is Clancy's duet with Tom Paxton on The Last Thing On Mind - a performance guaranteed to make old folkies quiver with nostalgia and wonder where the time has gone.


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