Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Heresy! The Book Of Secrets Is Hardly A Masterpiece (It Sounds Like Loreena McKennitt's Other Albums!)

The Good: Good voice, Musically interesting, Some decent musical poems.
The Bad: Could have been a little longer, Musically derivative within album, Vocals obscure lyrics.
The Basics: Loreena McKennitt's The Book Of Secrets is a decent Celtic pop album, but its musical repetitive quality is somewhat stifling to those listening to it over and over again.

Before the lynch mob of Loreena McKennitt fans I have been duly warned about begins to swarm, despite my title, I am recommending the album The Book Of Secrets, which is largely regarded by fans of Loreena McKennitt to be one of her best works and to the best of my knowledge is her greatest commercial success. And at the end of the day, I enjoy the music of Loreena McKennitt, but when one looks at many of her albums, they suffer from her own production as she produces the instrumentals over her vocals and her vocal stylings obscure her lyrics. On The Book Of Secrets, an album I have enjoyed for years, this problem, as well as reusing her own tunes on the same album, make it objectively less great than it initially appears.

That said, it's a wonderful album for those who want a modern Celtic album and those who enjoyed the song "The Mummer's Dance," which is on this album, are bound to be satisfied with this album. And it sounds good. If one is a passive listener to music, then The Book Of Secrets might well appear as a magnum opus for McKennitt. But careful listeners and anyone who actually wants to listen to lyrics to the songs they are hearing will likely be less overwhelmed as we struggle to listen to lyrics that are good, but not exceptional.

With only eight tracks, The Book Of Secrets is filled with only 53:17 minutes of Loreena McKennitt's music. Moreover, it is hard not to argue that McKennitt is creative, she inarguably is. McKennitt wrote the music for all of the songs and the lyrics to four of the five other songs that actually have lyrics. For the fifth, McKennitt set most of Alfred Noyes' poem "The Highwayman" to her new Celtic music and it works. McKennitt sings all five songs that have lines to be sung and sings such inarticulate things as the "la la la"s on "Prologue."

As well, McKennitt is instrumentally gifted. She plays at least one instrument on each and every track. She plays keyboards on all of the songs, as well as piano, harp, Kanoun, and accordion. Moreover, her arrangements are musically rich, so it is hard to say she does not have an way of filling her songs up with a real sense of sound and movement. She has a wonderful ear for creating songs that have a musical depth to them. The Book Of Secrets is produced by Loreena McKennitt, so this is her musical vision as well.

The overall sound is a popular mix of beats and classic instruments. McKennitt produces a new Celtic sound, blending classic instruments like the harp and the accordion with modern instruments like the electric guitar and synthesizer to create a pop-Celt sound. If the ancient Celts were brought into our time to make popular music, this is exactly what they might produce. And for those who have been stuck in the banalities of pop-rock music - especially the last few years as it crosses over into pop-hip hop music - albums like The Book Of Secrets offer a real alternative. The instrumentals are interesting and diverse and the high, feminine voice of Loreena McKennitt is a beautiful and different one.

The problem that I have with McKennitt on this and some of her other early works is that the way she produces the albums makes it very difficult to understand what she is singing. She has a beautiful voice, but she seldom articulates her lines and even when she does, she often pits her lines against instrumentals that are occupying a similar range and pitch, which makes the two frequently indistinguishable from one another.

Take, for example, McKennitt's hit song "The Mummer's Dance." On that song, in the refrain, she takes to soaring up the scale into Mariah Carey and bat territory right as she gives the instruments a crescendo. Is it any wonder, one is unlikely to hear her poem "Who will go down to those shady groves / And summon the shadows there / And tie a ribbon on those sheltering arms / In the springtime of the year / The songs of birds seem to fill the wood / That when the fiddler plays / All their voices can be heard / Long past their woodland days ("The Mummer's Dance") without consulting the liner notes for the lyrics?

And McKennitt is an able poet. "The Highwayman" is a great poem and including it on The Book Of Secrets leaves McKennitt with some big shoes to fill. Still, she manages to rise to the occasion by creating poems that have a similar sense of cadence and depth. McKennitt is able to create a truly classical sound with her lines like "Take me with you on this journey / Where the boundaries of time are now tossed / In cathedrals of the forest / In the words of the tongues now lost / Find the answers, ask the questions / Find the roots of an ancient tree / Take me dancing, take me singing / I'll ride on 'til the moon meets the sea / Ride on through the night, ride on" ("Night Ride Across The Caucaus"). McKennitt is good and she can write, making it unfortunate that so few of the lyrics on The Book Of Secrets are hers (or rather that so few of the songs have lyrics). McKennitt has a great sense of imagery and listening to this album is to transform one's sense of time and place.

However, for those looking for something Celtic in the strictest sense, McKennitt's lines on The Book Of Secrets might leave one somewhat unsatisfied. Some of the songs have pretty obvious Christian undertones and, strictly speaking, the ancient Celts were not Christian. As a result, those looking for a truly Celtic experience might find some of the poetics do not match their sense of philosophy. For example, it is hard to argue the sense of Christian imagery and implication - versus the Celtic one - is not present in McKennitt's lines "I did not believe because I could not see / Though you came to me in the night / When the dawn seemed forever lost / You showed me your love in the light of the stars / Cast your eyes on the ocean / Cast your soul to the sea / When the dark night seems endless / Please remember me" ("Dante's Prayer"). And that's fine, so long as one is not looking for authentic Celtic.

Musically, though, Loreena McKennitt leaves a little to be desired on The Book Of Secrets. On this album, she is unfortunately stealing from herself. "Prologue" and "Night Ride Across The Caucasus" have many of the same chords and progressions. Similarly, the middle of that latter track has a lot of the same instrumentation used in the same way as McKennitt does with her popular "The Mummer's Dance." As a result, listening to The Book Of Secrets over and over again, the listener might find they are a little dulled by the sound.

The album is a good one, but it is not exceptional. The best song is "The Highwayman," the low point is the unmemorable "Marco Polo."

For other Loreena McKennitt albums, be sure to visit my reviews of:
To Drive The Cold Winter Away
Parallel Dreams
A Midwinter Night’s Dream


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums and singles I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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