Blast-from-the-past time, but with a difference… It was only last year (2014, I mean) that prog-folk legends Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell returned to the recording scene after a rather long hiatus, with an all-too-quickly-sold-out vinyl EP (I Have Known Love). This itself had followed a timely resurgence of interest in the duo’s music when their three original albums from 1971, 1972 and 1973 were remastered and re-released (with bonus material) in October 2012 by the Esoteric label. It’s good news, then, for those who’ve only just caught up with the adventures of Leo and Sonny now, to find that the contents of that 2014 EP are included in full on The Dark Dance, which constitutes the first new studio album in 42 years from Tir Na NÓg.
Listening to the opening track, Sonny’s composition You In Yellow, you wouldn’t think Tir Na NÓg have been away, for it exhibits all the gentle Irish charm you associate with the duo in a beautifully expressed, economically evocative lyrical love poem. All the magical aura of those early Tir Na NÓg years comes flooding back, but this is no stale retro pastiche, instead its emotional content is genuinely imaginative and freshly minted. As indeed is the case also with Sonny’s next opus, The Angelus, which is a sensitive exploration of the mystical element in religious expression, the ritual daily ringing of the Angelus bell which coheres with the passing of time and the impact of the eternal changing seasons on life. The first of Leo’s songs, I Pick Up Birds At Funerals, which comes next in the sequence, takes the form of a twisted fairytale with a more quirky angle on the theme of the life-and-death cycle; thereby ends the series of four tracks that made up the aforementioned EP. Then follows the first of the brand new tracks: the compelling, driven Ricochet, a sinister, somewhat unbalanced rumination that pairs the angst of Joy Division with urgently fuelled, eastern-inflected introspection. The mood of inward-looking psychosis recurs on Leo’s bitterly self-pitying Sympathetic Love, while Time Is Gone is an ironic, double-edged reflection on the inevitable. Another classy new song from Sonny is the tenderly whimsical The Gangway, definitively conjuring the spirit of the Tir Na NÓg of old but with a slightly enigmatic lyric benefitting from the hindsight of the intervening decades and thus sounding just as original in today’s fickle climate. A more orthodox expression of romantic love, perhaps, is the coolly Latin-rhythmed Andria, to which the earlier EP’s title song (a composition by Eileen Lewellen with Simeon of obscure late-60s US cult experimental psych-electronic outfit Silver Apples) makes an apt foil with its rippling, glittering troubadour-style dreaminess. Most interestingly, perhaps, while The Dark Dance may seem at first to mildly exaggerate the different songwriting personalities of Sonny and Leo, its very coherence nevertheless brings the disparities in their respective styles closer together, and as a result the whole album feels altogether more unified.
Instrumentally, the perceptive lyrics of the duo’s latest batch of compositions are brilliantly matched by the stylish, creatively scored and slightly otherworldly psych-folk settings: neatly intricate acoustic guitar, swooning fiddle, cello, bouzouki, a smidgen of electric guitar, a little percussion here and there. Perfect. And it all dissolves into the album finale, its title track, which is a suitably darkly elegant instrumental coda composed by Elly Lucas – its effect is rather like viewing the closing credits of a movie, making you ponder on the thoughts and images that have gone before. Sheer magic – as is the complementary, decidedly dark and mysterious artwork and design of the digipack. Welcome back, Tir Na NÓg.
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