“Belong,” Susan McKeown (Hibernian Music)
Irish-born Susan McKeown, 45, has now spent half her life in America, and the singer-songwriter commemorates the milestone with her new “Belong” featuring McKeown’s original material presented in an Americana context.
Still, there’s an unmistakable non-American flavor that benefits the New York-based performer.
McKeown’s delivery is a little more histrionic, a little more precise than what Americans are accustomed to from their singers. Yet the pure sound is more sublime than affected, her clear voice reaching straight to listeners and enchanting with words and melody. In addition, “Belong” includes a pair of guest duet partners for McKeown — Irishman Declan O’Rourke on the gorgeous opener “On the Bridge to Williamsburg” and Brit James Maddock on the civil break-up song “Everything We Had Was Good.” In both cases, the men serve just enough tatter to scuff her polish, and the McKeown/O’Rourke collaboration is just short of magical.
Same goes for the clip-clopping old country “Fallen Angel,” where she can see the ominous glower behind a boyish disposition, her voice escalating as she sings, “I know you just wanna get even/I know you were an angel once.” The evocative, dirge-like “Lullaby of Manhattan” captivates with more direct darkness, her determination guiding lines like, “I wonder where I put my anger and why I couldn’t feel a thing.”
“Belong’s” rich sonic diversity includes everything from the lush “City of the Roses” (paced by conga, maracas and piano) to the reverberating Wurlitzer of “Patience.” And McKeown’s smart lyrics are a constant source of intrigue, whether she’s articulating the tale of a woman of ill repute who reaches her breaking point (the grim “Delph”) or questioning the last stand of a relationship (“Our Texas,” where she sings, “Could this be our Texas ... Our last great adventure before we go our separate ways?”)
It all culminates with her voice ringing out through the somber waltz of the finale, “No Jericho,” offering lines such as, “Now I’ll bid farewell to the dark, with one last cold kiss.”
Absorbing from beginning to end, “Belong” is a trans-Atlantic marvel.
Rating (five possible): 4