Irish singer Brigid Mae Power’s music has always had a beautiful edge and understated intensity to it but third album Head Above The Water sees her move into even heavier territory with 10 songs of unflinching honesty and soul-baring introspection. As the title suggests these are songs of struggle and survival, of navigating through life with the odds stacked against you. It might dwell unapologetically on themes of difficulty and hardship but Power is such a skilled songwriter that ultimately we come out the other side feeling strangely rewarded and comforted. She might tap into traditional folk music forms but she casts them in modern fashion.
Power’s floating, wavering vocals are as striking as ever but musically this is arguably the most cohesive she’s sounded as pedal steel guitar, flute and mellotron organ are employed next to traditional folk instruments like the bouzouki and bodhran. Musically the album does a good job in replicating the feeling of being lost at sea and emotionally adrift.
Power produced the album alongside Alasdair Roberts and Peter Broderick and it shares some of the sense of outsiderdom and otherness of Roberts’ folk music. Opening track On A City Night showcases the slow, deep-release nature of the album, finding her sounding somewhat unmoored as she drifts away into the distance. The first sign of emotional cracks come on Wearing Red That Eve which sees her backtrack through old memories, recalling some unpalatable moments along the way. It shows how the sadness of the album operates on two levels, both direct and oblique.
She’s able to assess these past events with a certain detachment throughout, observing from a suitable distance despite the evident emotion involved. At times some of the lyrics feel like ripples in a lake caused by disrupting activity lower down on the bed. Recollections are unearthed and slowly allowed to rise.
Not Yours To Own has the feeling of eerie calmness that follows being battered by a storm and I Was Named After You feels similarly unprotected and exposed. Like many tracks on the album there’s a powerful resonance in how her affecting lyrics gradually transition into wordless singing. At these points it almost feels like she’s reached a place of safety and acceptance.
On We Weren’t Sure her voice has a dance-like quality to it as it twirls and encircles while You Have A Quiet Power is embedded with longing and regret. I Had To Keep My Circle Small meanwhile sees her at her most vulnerable as she poignantly asks “I needed you to favour me… that is not a bad thing at all”.
As the album draws to a close with the sparse title track the feeling of pathos might be more present than ever but it’s matched by a feeling of respect for an artist able to convey human experience so powerfully and poetically. Not only is Head Above The Water a collection of beautiful deep-psych lullabies of the heart, it’s also a tender reminder of the importance of compassion and support when life gets tough.