Emily Maguire’s latest album, A Bit Of Blue, pretty much defines the maxim that when you want people to really listen, speak quietly: make them lean in to hear properly. The first time it went on my CD player, I confess I was only half-listening. This is very much the wrong thing to do: do not try this at home.
One song suddenly pierced through the distraction, grabbed whatever bit of the human brain it is that responds to music and grabbed on tight. The song, instantly recognisable as Sandy Denny’s immortal ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, was a version like no other before it. Maguire’s voice floats on a slick sheen of metallic guitar, sounding both day-dreamy and world-weary in equal parts. It’s a poignant, yet appropriate, choice for a musician who was prevented from playing her instruments for almost two years due to illness, leading to a depressive episode, and who must have felt that slipping away of time most acutely.
This album stands distinct from much of Maguire’s previous work in being a more downbeat and stripped back affair, laden with serious subject matter. That’s not to say it’s gloomy, not at all, but it is quietly reflective and thoughtful. The sublime musical arrangements have a deceptive gentleness that perfectly counterpoints abundantly bittersweet lyrics. Maguire mostly uses the softer, more delicate part of her voice, which only adds to the sense of emotional vulnerability and nakedness, but there is a core of strength there, too, a tiny flint of determination.
There is quite a bit of darkness to be found here, but it’s always leavened with the promise of light. Title track ‘A Bit Of Blue’ refers explicitly to this, Maguire searching the grey skies for any sign of blue breaking through (“enough to make a sailor a pair of trousers”, as the saying goes): an apt metaphor for depression and how hard it is for non-sufferers to comprehend.
Opening song, ‘Memory’, has a simply gorgeous interplay of piano and cello accompanying a song of long lost love. The death of love is bravely confronted in break-up song, ‘It’s Alright’, underlined by a moody piano. A quite different take on love is offered in ‘The Words That I Could Say’ where the female narrator makes endless excuses for not leaving a psychologically abusive relationship. It’s a plausible and scary insight into how we rationalise away what we can’t bear to confront. The optimistic, faintly country-ish guitar only underscores the quiet desperation of the lyrics.
A miscarriage is tenderly mourned in ‘Banks Of The Acheron’, over a spartan bar-room piano, while ‘Stones And Sky’ is an atmospheric spectral tale of the reluctant dead. Returning to the modern world is ‘For Free’ with its lamentation of commerciality and the “thousand friends I never see” on social media. Yet there’s an optimism as well, also evident on ‘Now Somehow’ (co-written with producer Nigel Butler), which addresses the fickleness of fortune. This is musically perhaps the most upbeat song on the album, although even here, there’s a subtle switching of mood between good times and bad.
The grit that makes the Maguire pearl is perhaps most evident in ‘I’d Rather Be’, a frank acknowledgement that she wouldn’t exchange the highs and lows of her bipolar condition “to hide in a narrow mind“. Maguire’s openness about her health issues, her work playing gigs for mental health patients, and books on the subject are all welcome contributions to ending the stigmas around mental illness. Unafraid to address the darkness but also seizing the light, this album feels like a bold and intimate personal statement.
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Artist website: http://www.emilymaguire.com
‘For Free’ – radio edit: