A couple of years ago Lisa O’Neill fulfilled a lifetime ambition by headlining at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. However, because of Covid restrictions she had to perform in an empty theatre. Or almost empty. Conscious of all the ghosts lingering around the stately Victorian auditorium, she called out to some friendly spirits to become her audience: Hilda Moriarty, who had been a medical student in the 1940s, back when the hall was still part of University College Dublin. Patrick Kavanagh, the infatuated poet twice her age, whom she mocked for only writing about turnips, and who in response wrote “Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away”. And The Dubliners, who set the verse to an ancient folk tune, and recorded it in 1971 as “On Raglan Road” – which Lisa performed in haunting a cappella, feet up on the seats into the dark of theatre.
But she conjured other spirits too, performing songs by Tom Waits, Ivor Cutler, Nina Simone and, in memory of a beloved relation, “My Pony, My Rifle And Me”, as sung by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. “I think I saw Ivor Cutler with Hilda and Paddy earlier,” she muttered, drifting into a brief reverie between songs. “Nobody’s social distancing in the Ghost Green Room…”
There’s no social distancing in O’Neill’s art either – it’s all here rolling around, hugger-mugger, in one big jamboree bag: the love, the grief, the rage, the strangeness, the humour and the wide-eyed wonder. And on All Of This Is Chance, she brings these elements together as never before, creating an album that feels like the first indisputable classic of 2023.
You may have heard the lead single “Old Note” already. It’s another of the songs that she debuted at the National Concert Hall, but here in radically different form. Back then, performed with just an acoustic guitar, it felt like some ancient folk song she’d plucked from oblivion. But the version as it appears here is entranced, born along on some starsailing, celestial drone. The arrangement was conjured by The Frames’ Colm Mac Con Iomaire as an experiment and it succeeds magically in casting O’Neill’s song as free on the breeze as the dandelion seeds gathering around the moon on the album’s cover.
Which isn’t to say that the songs are still rooted in the muck and clay of the everyday. The album begins with the title track, and some harsh words borrowed from Kavanagh: “Clay is the word and clay is the flesh / Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move / Along the side-fall of the hill…”
In 2020 The Abbey Theatre invited Lisa to perform in their adaptation of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger on the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham. The experience of immersing herself in Kavanagh’s poem stuck with her and liberated her. On 2018’s stunning Heard A Long Gone Song, O’Neil pulled up old tunes by the roots, and delivered them with all the shock of new hurt. Here it feels like all her research, all her time in the archive, has spurred her ambition, sent her out voyaging into the universe afresh, like the long-buried tune on “Old Note” that longs to be resurrected and live among the songs of birds, in their “lawless league of lonesome lonesome beauty”…
Birds like the iridescent peacock on “Birdy From Another Realm”, which is like William Blake bringing his subversively psychedelic vision to play on the ancient Cuckoo songs. Or the puffins and gannets that dance around a damned lover in “Whisht, The Wild Workings Of The Mind”. Or the wild dreaming sparrow on “Silver Seed”.
While …Long Gone Song was released on Rough Trade’s folk imprint, River Lea, All Of This Is Chance is very clearly a Rough Trade record. Which isn’t to say that it “transcends” folk or anything so daft. O’Neill’s bitter, bruised but boundless voice is clearly coming from a very particular time and place.
But for all that it’s come out of a singer steeped in traditional music, this record’s peers might be Astral Weeks, Starsailor, Music For A New Society, New Skin For The Old Ceremony and, in particular, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America. She’s not out of place among these ghosts either. If you’ve ever been spellbound by those songs of love, loss, wonder and despair, you need to listen to Lisa O’Neill.