Loreena McKennitt

An Ancient Muse

(Verve/Quinlan Road)

reviewed by Michael Lohr

The scent of falling Autumn leaves lingers upon the evening wind. The shimmering moonglow casts its radiance over still waters. Sense the return of the muse on the wind and the rain. The musical Goddess of Autumn has finally returned. All hail the Queen! It’s not been since 1997 that we were graced by a new studio album from Loreena McKennitt. Nine years since The Book of Secrets first whisked us away to ancient shores and distant times. Now along comes An Ancient Muse, and it was indeed worth the wait.

An Ancient Muse is nothing less than aural ambrosia. The record is a lush fusion of Celtic music, predominately Scottish and Irish balladry with the musical traditions of ancient Greece, Spain, Byzantine culture, the Bardic traditions of the Silk Road and Ottoman-era Turkey. Loreena’s music is a timeless journey across the many realms of Medieval Europe and indeed the world. Close your eyes and listen to the instrumental “The Gates of Istanbul” and you’ll feel like you’ve been transformed, a spiritual seeker on a journey and this record is your daily soundtrack. It’s the Fifteenth Century and you’re walking along a dusty road, among a caravan of camels, as you approach the stone city walls of old Constantinople. At the gates, a thousand smells linger in the air. A cacophony of sounds fills your senses. This is the power of An Ancient Muse, and Loreena’s music in general. It reaches across the centuries to touch our souls and serves as a reminder that humanity can indeed create something beautiful and wondrous.

Loreena’s music has always painted vivid landscapes in our mind or uplifted our spirits on rainy days. However, with An Ancient Muse, Loreena’s music serves as something else, catharsis for the soul, both ours as the listener and hers as the performer. A majority of the songs on An Ancient Muse are mid-tempo, neo-traditional melodies. They are as heartrending, as they are beautiful. Songs like “The English Ladye and The Knight” (a song based upon a poem by Sir Walter Scott), “Penelope’s Song” and the hypnotic “Beneath A Phrygian Sky” envelop the listener with ghostly memories, echoes of lost loves and past times. These songs conjure thoughts of our own mortality and the ever-moving wheel of time.

“Penelope’s Song” in particular focuses on leaving familiar places, family and the comforts of home to journey across the world toward unknown adventures. It is a song about those left behind and was written from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey, who is the classic paradigm of the long suffering, but dutiful wife.

An Ancient Muse weaves a melodic tapestry of joy, desire and sorrow. It is an ambitious record and the musicianship is near perfection. An Ancient Muse is a mixture of more traditional elements like those songs found on Loreena’s earlier records Elemental and Parallel Dreams and the grandeur and experimentation of The Mask and Mirror. Each song is a unique view emotionally, but the last song, the record’s crescendo, “Never-ending Road (Amhran Duit)” is an uplifting, a ray of hope, like the sun rising at the end of the film Henry V. This song explores the Bardic life; a life on the road. It explores the bard’s love for poetry and the magnificence of language. Of poignant focus is the struggle with the ever-present duality of longing for home and, once home, aching to get back on the road. From the devotionals of the Sufis and the poetry of Rumi to Anatolian poet Yunus Emre and Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, “Never-ending Road (Amhran Duit)” is a bewitching amalgam of musical flavors.

An Ancient Muse feels mythic. It’s beautiful and haunting.