Aoife O’Donovan can surprise you, as she does on Age of Apathy. For a singer who often uses quiet rather than trying to bowl you over with the strength of her voice, some of her thoughts can be a bit disconcerting. “Working on this record was me trying to grab the shards of glass from all the broken shit around us and repurpose them into something beautiful,” she said. While this may not be what you expected to hear, that’s part of the beauty of O’Donovan’s music, she gives you what you need, even if that isn’t what you came to expect.
Recording Age of Apathy was a bit of a challenge. Having moved to central Florida, she was confronted with the pandemic and how to make a record when people aren’t traveling. Instead of putting everyone together in one room, O’Donovan worked with Joe Henry who was in Maine, recording her vocals, guitar and piano from Full Sail University in Winter Park. Forwarding the tracks to core musicians, Henry and O’Donovan spent months instead of weeks listening to the elements and layering them in. The results offer something much more coherent and cohesive than would be expected from the process.
Eschewing choruses, O’Donovan’s song-writing heads down pathways like a storyteller fixed on reaching a certain point. Along the way there are moments that strike home in unexpected ways. The song ‘Age of Apathy’ is a song both rooted in the past and in the unexpected moments brought on by tragedy. For a song that starts amidst the glory of a band that sold over 1000 CDs in one of its first live appearances in the Berkshires, the bombing of the World Trade Center brings on remembrances of a vigil in Boston as she recalls, “Was it the end or the beginning/ All I remember is the singing and the music trying to drive away the fear.”
There’s also a sense of fearlessness residing inside O’Donovan. While completely sequestered she recorded her own version of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (Aoife Plays Nebraska), then proceed to record a live album with her husband, cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen and his brother, violinist Colin. As a result, Age of Apathy takes on themes without worrying about how things will be perceived. It’s also not without hope. The closing track, ‘Passengers’ envisions a post-pandemic future, journeying through interplanetary space. Beautifully strummed, it major-key vision offers a way forward, happily venturing toward new beginnings.
Along the way songs like ‘Elevators’ re-examines memories, coming to the understanding that nothing lasts. ‘Prodigal Daughter’ features Allison Russell on a track that opens with guitar before Russell’s harmonies and banjo take the song into a different space. But O’Donovan had always been willing to try different approaches, working with everyone from Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, and her mates in I’m With Her, Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz.
At the end of the day there’s nothing apathetic about Aoife O’Donovan’s Age of Apathy, this is an album made during a strange time letting us know that the only thing strange about these days is our reaction to them. Nothing is forever. Nothing except music and art.