Maria McKee has had quite the divergent career. From her cowpunk and American punk band Lone Justice in the mid-’80s to penning a huge hit for Feargal Sharkey and then having her own massive smash by reimaging the turgid words given to her for the Days Of Thunder ballad Show Me Heaven. Each of her solo endeavours since then have been nuanced and layered, not to mention an inspired appearance on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and the paradisical Sweetest Child produced with Youth.
It has been 13 years since her last album Late December. During this time, McKee was working with her husband Jim Akin, co-producing and starring in his independent films. La Vita Nouva pays homage to Dante’s own work on unrequited love and forms an epiphany of sorts for McKee, signalling the horizon of a brand new life. Her feelings of regret and desire were suddenly mapped out in 40 songs and plotted out a new charter. McKee now identifies as a pansexual, polyamorous, gender fluid dyke and with a 19-piece orchestra, some hefty lyrics overseeing her life in London and unburdening herself from past relationships, the album not only puts an end to a long hiatus, but also heralds a new dawn musically and spiritually.
The album’s opener Effigy Of Salt explores the turbulence and nostalgia of relationships with the wistfulness of Joni Mitchell against the jarring sonic backdrop of That Day by Natalie Imbruglia. This is followed by the folkloric and orchestral manoeuvre Page Of Cups, embracing newness and intuition with arresting vocals. Let Me Forget is McKee at her most transcendent. This would not be out of place in a bittersweet Sondheim musical with inspired lyrics like “The more that I invest, I feel I am not wrong, your pathos and complexity deserve their place in song.” The folky beginnings weave effortlessly into a ’70s inspired rock chorus evoking David Bowie. There are more shades of Bowie of the string-laden and rocky shimmer of the title track and on the sweeping I Just Want To Know That You’re Alright, a reaching out perhaps to her late brother Bryan MacLean in a kind of spiritual vein of Space Oddity.
The album is sung beautifully and tenderly in largely prosimetrical style and McKee’s lyrical waxes are frank and beguiling. There is a captivating acclamation of the diversity and rich and emblazoned history of McKee’s new home in Right Down To The Heart Of London and Ceann Bró is inspired by the relationship between Yeats and Maud Gonne. The dramatic and haunting piano of I Should Have Looked Away is enveloping. Little Beast is a simple and stunning theatrical ode that bizarrely evokes Angela Lansbury as Disney’s Mrs Potts. Weatherspace is a sweeping, ethereal soundscape with echoes of Tori Amos‘s Winter and Kate Bush‘s The Sensual World. The powerful strings and McKee’s striking vocals as the song ends are bewitching.
The album closes with However Worn. One of the softest tracks, this evokes the emotional and bittersweet Lament from the Evita soundtrack and signals a meditative calm and self-awareness after the storm of what has gone before. The passion here and genuine ambition keeps the candid narrative from feeling overwrought or overblown. There is a melancholy and spirituality in McKee’s voice that is affectingly celestial, yet never over-reaching. La Vita Nouva is a deeply personal and cathartic album and is certainly one that requires more than one listen. Each time will lift you up into a higher state of consciousness. A dramatic and unbridled return to a new beginning.