Initially, moved by seeing the image of a young refugee washed up on the shore, the County Down singer-songwriter set out to write a single song about the futility of war and, over the course of three years and reaching out to musicians from war zones, that turned into an entire album exploring how conflict has affected not just the people of Northern Ireland, but people all over the world affected by conflict. That song now forms the initially strummed and gradually building instrumentation title track, ‘Lessons Of War’ (and has also led to a documentary), recorded at different locations around the world and featuring Anthony Seydu from Sierra Leone adding vocals and percussion in a call to those in charge to hear the voices of those that “have been ransomed” to their command, ending with the Citizens of the World Choir, a London based choir made up of refugees from war-torn regions, singing “as-salamu alaikum dayimann” – peace be with you.
Featuring double bass, piano and dobro, the album opens with ‘Writing On The Wall’, a litany of the harrowing impact (“families that were ransacked and left to decompose”) of the unholy alliance of warmongers and profiteers. McGinn’s voice at times recalls fellow Irishman Ben Glover who, in fact is his co-writer on the bluesy shuffle ‘I Was There’ which, featuring jazz flute and organ notes ranges from Belfast (with its references to the Catholic/Protestant divide of taig and hun) to burning crosses Montgomery and the tent city of Calais as witness to the hate “in everybody’s heart”. It’s then followed by the slow march pace of the self-explanatory ‘Refugees’ (“ghosts of who we were”), written with fellow Co. Down songwriter Brigid O’Neill and again inspired by the image of the drowned boy, with Jon Thorne on double bass, Gretchen Peters’ accordionist Barry Walsh, backing vocals by Breige McGinn and the legendary Mickey Raphael on mournful harmonica.
Co-penned with Mick Flannery with Vyvienne Long on cello and McGinn on piano accompany Ciara O’Neill’s vocals, ‘Bubblegum’ is especially rooted in “the troubles”, the lyrics inspired by the diary of a teenage girl caught between matters of the heart (“I like Johnny/Down the street//But I don’t know if he likes me”) and the hard realities of bars being blown up, curfews, soldiers on the streets and the knowing line about how “ Daddy pinned up Bobby Sands for me right next to my Madness poster”.
It’s appropriately followed by Stephen Scullion co-write ‘Child Of War’, a cello-driven (this time by Karen Porter) first person lament on “a lowly child of woe” who “can’t undo the things I’ve seen”) and from there, Yazen Ibrahim on nylon string guitar, to the plaintive acoustic ‘An Suaimhneas’ (One Day of Peace), sung in Gaelic and written with Grainne Holland.
He again cedes the microphone on ‘Lyra’, his piano and Long’s cello backing Ria Maguire on a spare song written on the morning of her funeral about Lyra McKee, the young journalist who was shot reporting on a riot in Derry, though its hope that her death might bring people to their senses proved overly optimistic.
Again given a minimal arrangement, here muted jazz piano and drums backdropping the vocals by McGinn and co-writer Ciaran Lavery, ‘The Hunt’ is another song in search of resolution (“I’ll find you and take you home”), the album ending with Porter’s cello and John McCullough on organ accompanying McGinn on the lovely folksy slow waltz ‘When Will We Learn’ calling for an end and asking how many bridges must be burned and how many more guns will speak before we listen and learn. The more songs there are like these, perhaps the nearer we might get to an answer.
Artist’s website: www.mattmcginnmusic.com
‘Bubblegum’ – live: