Margaret McLarty – Brigid’s Birds
Self Released – 2017
Margaret McLarty’s album Brigid’s Birds has, in a sense, taken a long time to come about. The songs have been written over a decade and McLarty says they “are my twenties. I want to get them out of the way”. This chronological journey starts with Yellow Skirt: a young woman, possibly just turning from her teenage years, still thinking about her first love. Was this a love that went nowhere, afraid that pursuing it would lead to rejection? Is that why the letters remain unsealed? Starting soft and sad, the singer lifts herself by wearing her Yellow Skirt and even though it may be December, five years later, it still brings the summer back to her. Sad, but not depressive; the skirt takes control, the tempo changes and a flute dances us away, forgetting the blue, brightening to the yellow.
Knowing that the album is a reflection across a period of time, it is interesting that there are two versions of Baron’s Heir, on tracks 3 and 7. McLarty speaks of track 5 as being a sort of line between two “acts” and as these two versions fall either side it helps in understanding their different presentation. The earlier version is very bouncy, the guitar driving the song forward creating a sense of speed that in places is in danger of overriding the lyrics – particularly if you need to get your ear tuned to the Scottish words. In the later version, an accordion provides the introduction with a drone, followed by a gentler guitar and thus a gentler voice. In contrast to the earlier version, this is very sympathetic and more mature.
Before we reach the end of this first ‘act’, Stormy Sea finds McLarty “searching for a promise” as “things are rough right here, right now”. As with Yellow Skirt, there is an underlying sense that even if this may be rock-bottom and that “all I can hear is the roar of the wind”, there is hope and the stormy sea will not be carrying her away. So, on to the cusp: Lullaby. The sea appears again as a peaceful rest is about to come: “if the waves crash on the shore of your memory”, just “turn away…and breathe in”. The guitar plucks away in the near background but the piano adds a different feel to that expected at the outset. The last 45 seconds of fragments of piano notes and understated chimes slows down the still regular guitar and guides us towards the closing of our eyes – stars coming out as lights are extinguished.
Brigid’s Birds are oystercatchers that breed on the coast in Scotland. Here they are also a metaphor, marking the way along the path, emphasising that the route is always ahead. However, even if the inevitable occurs – “we’re all leaving anyway” – there is again this sense of optimism, possibly a celebration of the permanence of impermanence. The birds are ever-present through the voice of the electric guitar and will continue to be, even though the song will have run its course.
I suppose now in her later twenties, Elephant Tears (track 8 out of ten) is presumably addressing her former selves: “the secret soaked seven year old” and the darkened “teenage mind”. McClarty’s voice easily lends itself to these soul-searching lines and you know, you feel, that she has lived them. Then, from this broad look over the shoulder we reach the penultimate song, Widen Your Horizons, calling to mind a dramatic change, perhaps of a relationship, a common theme across this album. It also seems that McLarty’s pen is being used for broader strokes (sort of mixing my metaphors here), the lyrics creating an impression rather than a distinct image; “he said, she danced – she danced, he said” repeated throughout, the actions in these words almost suffusing the call to “widen your horizons”.
And so we reach the end of the decade with Long Time. Up beat and yet still reflective – yes. But a greater sense of optimism for the future, the sense that a new future has started and all will be well. At one level, this is an album of soft, subtle songs that are just right for those important moments of the day, or night, when something calming and reflective is called for. Themes of sea and stars abound, reflections of time spent away from her native Glasgow, particularly on Iona.
But at another, deeper level, this is McLarty, sharing her journey with us, her path through a period of her life that is now behind her. We have all had those periods and are glad that they are over. However, these songs say more than just how bad it was. They say that despite these things happening, there is always hope, there is always tomorrow and that
if I take my time
on this salt water path
I pray I see
a way toward love
away from the ache of memory
Available now via Bandcamp: https://margaretmclarty.bandcamp.com/album/brigids-birds