Adrian Crowley might as well be the love child of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. The Dublin-based songwriter has the intense introspection, cracking baritone voice, and distaste for sentimentality that both of those masters of originality were known for.
A few months ago, I heard Crowley perform live in a rare U.S. appearance, thanks to the New York Irish Art Center’s SongLives indie series. Crowley’s self-effacing presence and the powerful emotional sophistication of his poetry intrigued me, so I was eager to explore his many recordings.
He’s been at this awhile, with nine albums currently available and another on the way. Not surprisingly, the 1999 debut, A Strange Kind, doesn’t show the artist fully formed. Instead you get a talented singer and songwriter steeped in Irish and British folk traditions and channeling the likes of Martin Carthy, Dick Gaughan, and Nic Jones. Here’s “The Cage of My Ribs,” which features a hummable melody delivered in a clear, ringing voice. A general outlook of sadness is already evident, but you can’t tell yet just how deep it will go.
Jump ahead a few years, and Crowley’s style has already changed. “Tall Ships,” from the 2002 album When You Are Here You Are Family, reveals two traits that he has not let go of since: a sort of keening in the melody line and a preference for triple meter.
And another basic characteristic of Crowley’s output shows up at this early point. Despite what initially seem like grim lyrics, the poetry never gives up hope that an awful world might get better. “If the birds of truth / Should take to flight, / I’ll wait for them.” [Warning! If you're playing this cut on your big rigs, the left channel has some nasty clipping on the drum tracks that can be heard as a bit of a transient crack. It's not your tweeter destroying itself--not yet, anyway! ---Ed.]
By “The Wishing Seat,” from the 2009 album Season of the Sparks, Crowley has become comfortable with his almost spoken declamation of the words, making the fact that it’s being done to music almost an incidental detail. This is what reminds me so much of Lou Reed. To go along with this word-focus is more imaginative imagery in the text, phrases like “heavy-bellied clouds.” It’s a surprise when the chorus turns out to be densely melodic and strictly rhymed.
A contributing factor to the development of Crowley’s sound is his increasing reliance on synthesizers. That’s in addition to, and sometimes instead of, acoustic and electric guitar. His sixth album, I See Three Birds Flying (2012), like Season of the Sparks, was produced by Dublin’s experimental composer Stephen Shannon (aka Strands), who brought in textural layers that support Crowley’s melancholic disposition.
The digital landscape blends seamlessly with the analog. Crowley and Strand give us “The Saddest Song” (clearly labeled in case you don’t think Crowley’s songs can contain more sadness than they have up to now). It starts as simple acoustic guitar with reverb, and a vocal captured so close that you can practically feel the individual microbes of sorrow. Then Strand brings in lush strings, which fall and rise under another verse of nearly tuneless lyrics.
We catch the poem mid-flight, with the first line starting, “And I turned away / from the darkened window.” What happened in the moments before? Or the decades before? Crowley engages the listener’s imagination rather than answering.
In “Red River Maples,” Crowley shows his gift for writing about nature. The recording suffers for the seasick wobble of its flute-sample accompaniment. (Why not just get some folks to play the flute?) This is also a rare instance when I wonder what the song would sound like from someone with a big, strong voice in the folk tradition. How about Joan Baez?
The 2014 album Some Blue Morning is Crowley’s most recent completed work. At his concert in New York he mentioned a new album, but as of this writing it does not yet exist. Still, there’s plenty to study and wonder at in Some Blue Morning. Produced by his long-time Glasgow label Chemikal Underground, this collection of songs is both a step forward and a homecoming.
The production features acoustic instruments like drums, bowed strings (including a contribution by the London-based ensemble called The Geese), and plucked strings (mandolin, guitar, and do I hear a bouzouki?). Interestingly, in his live show, Crowley was accompanied by producer Thomas Bartlett (AKA Doveman) using synth keyboards to stand in for all these instruments. But the acoustic resonance defines this album and brings greater focus to the way Crowley’s voice – or his attitude toward using it – is changing.
Take “The Hungry Grass,” for example. The vocals are less singing than grumbling – with each album he is less of a singer and more of a poet who feels compelled to let his thoughts leak out. The accompaniment, on the other hand, is busy with sawing fiddles that call to mind the traditional music that clearly influenced Crowley from the start.
It’s appropriate to end with “Follow If You Must,” featuring Katie Kim singing a doubled vocal line an octave above the slow, legato melody. Crowley’s voice seems to fight against it, as if he’s forgotten how to make a smooth, untroubled sound. But that doesn’t matter when the basso grumble bears haunting lines like “If you come back from the shadowlands, / I’ll be waiting with open hands / one part sorrow, two parts trust./ Follow if you must.”
See? That glimmer of hope still peeps through the gloom in Crowley’s mind.