Music Review: Susan McKeown -Singing In The Dark
You'd think we'd have matured enough by now we could talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Instead the stigma attached to even the most basic of emotional difficulties is so great most people are still loath to even admit they're seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. All you have to do is watch people squirm and try to change the subject when you bring up the fact that you've been seeing somebody to help you deal with emotional problems to understand what I'm talking about. The only thing worse than dealing with the rest of the world's reactions to your circumstances are the way the majority of the medical profession - especially those who treat them specifically - deal with mental illnesses.
They see their job as doing their damnedest to take your square pegged self and make you fit into the nice little round holes society wants us all slotting into. The problem is that far too much of the time its been trying to fit into those little round holes that have caused you all the problems in the first place. The usual answer offered by the profession is to medicate the crap out of you so you don't notice the shit that caused you to slip off the rails. So if you've been having the perfectly normal reaction to the tensions of living in our world today of having anxiety attacks they'll pump you full of pills to deaden your emotions and turn you back into a mindless sheep content with career, house in the suburbs and the ability to swallow what you hear and see in the media as the gospel truth.
While for some that might be the answer to their troubles, others might find that a cost their not willing to pay for easing their minds. It's probably no coincidence that throughout history artists, specifically poets, have been troubled by what we would call mood disorders. What has been commonly referred to as the "artistic temperament" may actually have been an indication of something deeper: depression, manic/depression, anxiety or some other form of emotional imbalance. During their lifetimes a great many poets lived lives of intense suffering and poverty as they were shunned by "normal" society and it was only in their art they were able to find solace. The insights into human nature and emotions which have been the hallmarks of some of the world's great poetry, ensuring their places in history, are in most cases a result of the writer suffering from some sort of trouble of the mind.
When singer/songwriter Susan McKeown began researching her family tree she was startled to discover the high incidence of disturbances among the creative members of her ancestry. Fascinated by this correlation she set out to discover more, and soon realized her family wasn't an anomaly. In an effort to try and reduce some of the stigma attached to people dealing with these issues McKeown has created an album adapting the work of poets who wrote about those feelings. The result, Singing In The Dark, is a beautiful and haunting collection of work capturing both the emotional highs and lows experienced by the creative spirit.
McKeown has gathered together the work of poets throughout history whose work either reflects their own struggles with emotional imbalances or has something to do with the subject. Trawling through the ages she has reached back into our earliest works, "Mad Sweeny", whose origins lie in the 5th century and travelled through to modern times and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". Along the way she pays her respect to writers on both sides of the Atlantic including Lord Byron, "We'll Go No More A Roving" and John Rowland, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" from England; Nula Ni Dhomhnaill, "The Crack In The Stairs" and James Clarence Mangan, "The Nameless One" from Ireland; Theodore Roethke, "In A Dark Time" and Anne Sexton "A Woman Like That (Her Kind)" from America and Spaniard Violeta Parra, "Gracias A La Vida" (Thanks To Life) amongst them.
As you can tell from their titles these songs, poems, go places most of aren't used to, or interested in, going when listening to music. However, there's a reason these works have survived and are around today for McKeown to have adapted, and that's because no matter how depressing you might think the topic at hand is, there is something uplifting or compelling about each of the works. Part of that is McKeown's abilities as a performer and her incredible command of her voice which allows her to sing one song, "The Crazy Woman" by Gwendolyn Brooks, in an aching tenor and another, Cohen's aforementioned "Anthem" in a rich alto.
The material isn't hurt by the fact she has surrounded herself with what is obviously an amazingly gifted group of musicians and technicians who have helped her bring her vision to reality. I mention the latter because as I was listening to this disc I couldn't help but notice how cleanly the songs have been mixed so each instrument sounds like its been nestled in a cocoon keeping their integrity intact while still being obviously only one small piece of a much larger picture. With the variety of instruments being used it would have been easy for the sound to have turned to mud, instead it is crystal clear.
Musically she also has some surprises in store for listeners. Upon reading the disc is composed of songs adopted from poems dealing with mental illness, one could almost be forgiven for assuming the material is going to be full of sweeping electronics, melodic strings, and other typical means of creating atmosphere. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the amount of fuzz being used on the electric guitar on the Roethke piece opening the disc and the rocking lead guitar searing through the adaptation of Sexton's piece that follows. While in the opening track the fuzz serves as a contrast to McKeown's voice, on "A Woman Like That", she develops the roughness of voice to match the guitar. I like the irony of her dealing with a topic that's been subject to so much misconception by shattering a great many of the preconceived notions most people would have had about how this type of material would be presented. Just because its poetry doesn't mean its going to be pretty or precious. Of course if you think about it, with such gritty subject matter it makes sense for the music to be equally real.
However, no matter how interesting and well played the music on the recording is, its still the words which lay at its core. Here's where McKeown shows her amazing capacity for understanding the various aspects of emotional conditions. The material reflects not only a variety of experiences but the diversity of emotions felt by those who deal with them their whole lives. Again expectations are probably going to be dashed as in spite of what anyone might think, people suffering from emotional disturbances, even sever ones, are still quite rational and aren't necessarily depressed or manic all of the time. In fact one of the more prevalent emotions you can hear being expressed on this disc is hope. Whether its in the firmness of the convictions expressed by the woman in the "The Crazy Woman", "I'll not sing a May song/A May song should be gay/I'll wait until November/And sing a song of grey", or the knowledge that even when the darkness seems complete light still has a chance as Cohen's "Anthem" makes sure to point out, "Ring the bells that still can sing/Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in/That's how the light gets in".
There's no denying though, there are some pretty torturous paths being followed by the minds of some of the poets she has drawn upon. However when you read about their life stories, or the history surrounding a specific piece, as described in the CD's liner notes, you will see how a great many of these writers were pushed into darkness by their circumstances. Too often we tend to look at someone's behaviour and judge them without searching beyond to see what might have caused it. The number of abused women who are punished for being overtly violent, put into anger control programs, or worse, for lashing out at those who have been torturing them is only one indication of how deeply we are failing those dealing with emotional disorders.
Easing their burdens shouldn't be so difficult, and Susan McKeown's is another voice being raised on their behalf in an attempt to demystify these types of "illnesses". Not only does Singing In The Dark offer moral support, a portion of the proceeds from its sale are being donated the following groups helping people: National Alliance on Metal Illness (NAMI), Fountain House, BringChange2Mind and The Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG). This is an album of spectacular singing, great musicand intelligent lyrics in support of a good cause - what more could you want?
(Article first published as Music Review: Susan McKeown - Singing In The Dark on Blogcritics.)