Album review: Postcards from Ireland

Oh dear – there it is! Celtic Woman have a new album, called Postcards from Ireland. And what can I say? It’s amazing. Just absolutely gorgeous. It’s fresh and familiar at once, reminiscent of the earlier albums, yet also new and modern.

This is, in part, due to the new musical director: Daragh O’Toole has a beautiful style that reminds the listener sometimes of Gavin Murphy and more often of David Downes, but is nonetheless original and independent. The songs have a wonderful balance of mostly traditional and folk, but also classical and contemporary melodies.

And the cast – oh! it’s just wonderful: Tara McNeill and Megan Walsh are fabulous as always, Muirgen O’Mahony, the newest member, fits in beautifully, original member Chloë Agnew has returned, and Susan McFadden makes a guest appearance, and they feature The Long Johns.

The album’s style is very intense, but not overpowering. The orchestrations are intricate, the arrangements for each song are individual, yet fit perfectly together. In many ways, it feels like a modern take on the style of the earlier albums. But let us discuss each song on its own:

The Dawning of the Day has been out as a single for several weeks now, and it has been a perfect introduction to the album, giving us an idea of what it’s like, without giving away too much. In the tradition of two of the most beloved Celtic Woman intros, it is a song of dawn, but unlike them, not an original but a traditional. The melody of Fáinne Geal an Lae is lovely, and has been long awaited – and I am, personally, glad they chose to do this version instead of Raglan Road. Both songs have the same tune, yet entirely different energies. That aside, I know there are many complaints about the arrangement being too lush and heavy, and the voices too similar. I disagree on both things. Just because most versions of The Dawning of the Day are very gentle, it doesn’t mean that this has to be like them. There is no rule to it, and I like the originality, and find it a perfect way to start an album. That aside, all three voices are perfectly distinguishable, especially Chloë’s. The fact that O’Toole is a film composer is obvious, but I think that works well for the group. It is, all in all, simply gorgeous.

Bonny Portmore is the first solo, and it’s Megan’s. Out of all the songs she had sung with Celtic Woman so far, it is by far my favourite, and it is also one of my favourites on this album. The orchestration is simple and elegant, and Megan’s vocals are haunting. It is a pleasure to hear how much her voice has matured, and to hear her use her more classical, warm timbre, which she had sometimes used in group numbers, but until yet not in her solos. The song is just as it should be – a fine example of a traditional, even conventional arrangement that still sounds like no other. There is no fuss, no distraction. It’s beautiful.

Mise Éire has also been out as a single for quite a while now. It’s one of the songs I had wondered about – it is a poem after all, and I wondered what musical setting they would use. I found the Patrick Cassidy one not fit for Celtic Woman at all, too ethereal, too New Age. But it turned out to be beautiful. The style wouldn’t do for a whole album, but it’s beautiful for one song, and the solemn tune and serious, political text add substance.

Wild Mountain Thyme is another song that had been expected and awaited for a long time now. And it is also a song that could have been so wrong for them. I am glad it isn’t arranged as a ballad – that would be rather sweet, but also a bit dreary – but as a march, which is just perfect. Percussion, pipes, and perfect harmonies. It’s a magnificent song, intense and strong, yet graceful. It is easy to see why it is already considered the stand out piece. It’s gorgeous and rousing, and I am glad they did it like that. I originally thought it would be the first they’d release as a single, but now I see why they kept it back.

Beeswing is a collaboration with The Long Johns. It’s one of the most contemporary sounding song on the album, and it works really well. I wouldn’t call it my personal taste for Celtic Woman songs, but as with Mise Éire it’s the kind of style that sounds really great for an individual song, even if it wouldn’t do for a whole album. It’s not as energetic as I thought it would be, but it has a nice rhythm, and balanced solo bits. I’m sure it’s going to be very popular, and it keeps the balance of not being a typical Celtic Woman song, yet also not too untypical.

Down By The Salley Gardens might be the song I was most excited about. It’s one of my favourite songs, and I was thrilled to find out that Celtic Woman finally did their own version. I initially thought (and hoped) it would be a solo for Megan, and was slightly disappointed when I found out it’s not, but I do find Muirgen’s version lovely. Megan might have sung it with a bit more ease – some notes seem a tiny bit strained – but Muirgen’s sweet and warm timbre work so well with the unusual, a bit cool-sounding orchestration, that I am really glad it’s hers. Like Bonny Portmore, it is a delightfully pure and unobtrusive arrangement, yet also original and unique. It’s very elegant, calm, and beautiful. Of course, it’s one of my favourites. (And it is nice to have such a warm, sweet voice in the group!)

Where Sheep May Safely Graze is another favourite tune that I have been very excited about. I hoped it would be a group number, because I didn’t think a violin solo could be truly rousing. And yet it is a violin solo, and – oh, it’s just wonderful! The orchestration is beautiful, never overpowering, but strong in itself, and Tara’s genius truly shines through. Classical music might be her strongest suit (although she is, of course, always fantastic!) and she her fiddling is so colourful, so warm and lovely. It is a truly exhilarating melody, and the arrangement and performance bring out all that is lovely about it. I am generally fond of Bach, and having such a serene and cheerful piece right in the middle of a rather solemn album feels so right. It might be my personal highlight.

Angel is Chloë’s solo. It’s another song many fans have wanted them to cover. I didn’t. I just don’t think it’s a good song for Celtic Woman or this particular album, but I do admit they made it work. It’s fascinating to hear how much Chloë’s voice has evolved over the years. In many ways, she had grown out of Celtic Woman, hadn’t fit their vocal style as much as she did in the beginning, and instead went on to pursue a solo career that suited her adult voice better. Now in this album, she really kept the balance of fitting in with the harmonies, while also keeping her own distinctive sound, and on this track she can really do her own thing. The slight gospel-tone in the background also feels very right.

The Lakes of Pontchartrain is a duet between Megan and Tara. I love that the violinist is always seen as equal with the singers of Celtic Woman, and a song of one vocalist and the fiddler is considered a duet. As Megan’s first solo is very heavy and sad, it’s nice to have her sing such a light, folksy track. Not that it’s happy – not at all – but it has a lighter sound. Tara, too, can flourish. She falls, I think, a little short on most group songs, and often seems a bit overpowered by the backing instrumentals, so I am glad that she has two solos and a duet to truly shine on. It’s really a nice song.

May it Be is where Susan appears. It’s such an unusual, unexpected version, done so right. I originally expected and hoped for the three-part hamony of the Celebration tour, and O’Toole did choose this arrangement, but made it a solo. And he chose Susan to sing it. For most of her time with Celtic Woman, Susan had been considered the contemporary powerhouse, the Broadway belter so-to-speak. Having her sing such an ethereal piece is a very unconventional choice – and a brilliant one. Susan’s light and perhaps a bit thin, but powerful and clear voice works perfectly for it. Maybe even better than on a pop song, or at the very least just as good. May it Be had been sung by so many Celtic Woman members, but this version is so different that it still sounds new.

The Calm of the Day / The Banshee is Tara’s second solo, energetic and traditional. I wouldn’t call it exactly cheerful, but it’s one of the less solemn songs, and one could easily imagine her playing it in a pub or at thc céilí. With her first solo being such a sweet, classical air, it’s just right that her second one is more traditional and fun. It is one of the more traditional pieces on the album, and it works well. It is, in fact, interesting to see how the album manages to combine smoother almost cinematic styles with rougher sounding folk music, without sounding uneven or cluttered.

The Galway Shawl is a smoothly moving, folksy waltz. The vocals are lovely, neatly working together, and slightly reminiscent of classic folk singers. Though it has a quiet melody, the lyrics are much happier than most of the album, and the entire song is deeply romantic. It’s a modern arrangement, and though that is the kind I usually don’t prefer, I have to say it works truly well for this song. Though not particularly exciting, it is a very beautiful, smooth piece, and the arrangement and performance work truly well. Might be one of the hidden gems on the album.

Black is the Colour is the last song, and one day had, like May it Be, done before. Previously a solo, it is now a group song, and it works really well for that. It’s a very quiet, calm, not ethereal but very airy arrangement. It’s a more modern take on the song, but it takes up the style of Mise Éire and even May it Be, and through that makes it all fit together again. In some ways it feels like a bonus track, but then I guess one might consider it to be one. It is a very quiet, slow ending to an unusual, and interesting album. Very good – I wouldn’t say I prefer it to the earlier version, but what’s the use in doing a song again, when it doesn’t sound differently? It’s a good arrangement, and reminds me a bit of Méav’s.

All in all, it is a very good album. I always have mixed feelings about new Celtic Woman albums, but that it’s how it’s supposed to, isn’t it? It’s always simultaneously the best and the worst they ever did, and it always feels so different from the others, and then, after getting used to it, it really shows that it’s another very good, though naturally imperfect album that has its own flavour while suiting the group. It is a bit solemn, almost sad, at times, but it is about Ireland and her history, and it is also their “pandemic release”. But I think it’s amazing in its variety and smoothness. The musical styles are very different and capture all styles Celtic Woman do from traditional to contemporary, from classical to film music. It reminds on of the earliest and most recent of the group’s albums, and brings new and old members together. And yet, not once does it feel jumbled together or muddled up. It is a great new album for a new era of Celtic Woman music that stays true to their own tradition. I agree that one misses the harmonies at times, and also the strong voice of the fiddle, but all albums have their own weaknesses as much as they have their strenghts, and all albums are in some ways characteristic for Celtic Woman, and in other ways unusual. I think it does remind one a bit of the very first Celtic Woman album, and yet it’s very new and fresh. It’s good.

Musical Selection: Mise Éire

Celtic Woman’s newest single—to hint at their upcoming album Postcards from Ireland—is a touching new interpretation of of the 1912 poem by the Irish poet and Republican revolutionary Patrick Pearse, set to music by Patrick Cassidy. ☘️

Mise Éire means I am Ireland. It is the story of Ireland in the person of an old woman, grieving that her own children have sold her.