Age of Apathy is Aoife O’Donovan’s most grounded and assured album yet.
Though recorded in lockdown, Age of Apathy dreams of motion. Songs catalog bus routes and rearview mirrors; characters speed down backroads, ascend in elevators, and keep a watchful eye on the movements of celestial bodies. In the title track, the narrator blasts Joni Mitchell from the car radio. For Aoife O’Donovan— singer, songwriter, and professional itinerant— Mitchell can’t help but be a lodestar and patron saint: Another restless poet who quests for connection and seeks refuge in the road.
Indeed, wanderlust seems like a habit of being for O’Donovan, whose own discography is a series of detours and crossed paths. She has made fine albums as a solo artist, as the leader of Crooked Still, and as a co-founder of I’m With Her. Despite its transitory concerns and the mitigating circumstance of its creation, Age of Apathy is her most grounded and assured album yet. It’s sung with grace and passion. It’s written with an intuitive sense of story, poetry, mystery, and thematic connection. And it’s produced with warmth, texture, and detail by Joe Henry, a man who can produce great singer-songwriter albums in his sleep, yet still finds new ways to distinguish his work. Here he wrangles a team of musicians, including go-to studio hands like drummer Jay Bellerose as well as marquee guests like Allison Russel, all of whom recorded their parts remotely. You’d never know of the album’s piecemeal provenance unless you read it somewhere: It sounds as elegant and as seamless as if all the parts were recorded live and in real-time.
Age of Apathy is an album that sounds uncluttered and direct, but which surprises with new layers on each listen. In some other corner of the multiverse, this album might have been rendered with fusty austerity, and O’Donovan’s melodies are so winsome that they probably could have supported it. Blessedly, she and Henry chose a more generous route, populating these songs with ear candies and sensual delights: Listen to the woodwinds that snake through “Sister Starling,” to the burnished soft-rock harmonies on “B61,” to the open-air finger-picking that brings glistening grace notes to the devastating “Prodigal Daughter.” The album’s grace and poise never shake, not even when it takes surprising detours into scuffy, minor-key rock (the brooding “Lucky Star”) or summons the ghosts of Lilith Fair (the lilting “What Do You Want from Yourself?”, as confrontational as its title). Varied, textured arrangements give the album depth and character, but they don’t distract from O’Donovan’s pliable tunes and clear, confident singing.
The production mirrors the songs themselves, which churn and thrum with uncertainty and dislocation. O’Donovan’s characters often find themselves caught in time’s riptide, doing their best to make peace with bygone days. “What Do You Want from Yourself?” answers its own question with jarring clarity: “What do I want? I want to be what I wanted to be in 1993.” There is a similar struggle to reconcile with the past in “Prodigal Daughter,” which downplays the Bible’s aspirational grace with a more measured psychological realism: “I know forgiveness won’t come easy,” O’Donovan admits. A few of these songs drop anchor in specific times and places — “Elevators” paraphrases Bono’s famed reminder that “outside, it’s America,” while “Age of Apathy” is set in the long shadow of 9/11— but O’Donovan is just as comfortable writing in allegory and myth, as in a provocative song where she exiles herself from a town called Mercy. In “Passengers,” an album-ending guitar jam with Madison Cunningham, the planets are in motion and we’re all just along for the ride. But a more persuasive moment comes in the title song, which posits love as the true center of gravity: “When nothing’s got a hold on you / If you need someone to hold, you can hold me.”
Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2022 | Part 2.