There’s no point in covering a song unless you’re going to bring something to it, to make it your own in some way and bring out an element that may not have been there before. Anything else is little more than self-indulgence.
Though it may seem crass to draw comparisons with Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” series, there’s a refined quality to Christy Moore’s new album, “Burning Times,” that recalls the same kind of presence the Man in Black imbued to songs that were not his own. However, rather than having a producer like Rick Rubin to pick out the songs that might work best for him, Moore has found himself magnetically drawn towards certain songs over the years: “I love to sing a song that has meat and bones in it, that has a personality and a character…’cause it’s what I do. I wouldn’t perform my own or another writer’s songs with any more passion or examination. To me, a song is a song no matter who’s written it. I mean if I sing a song to you now and it lasts four minutes, for those four minutes, that song belongs to me and you – the singer and the listener. As soon as I’m finished singin’ it, then it reverts to Bob Dylan. He gets it back then,” he laughs.
In many cases, Moore has been playing these songs for years, honing and subtly re-shaping them until they’re as familiar as an old set of friends. Yet even for those that have come to make regular appearances in live performances, the songs of this particular collection were fortunate to find a home together at all. Ever the perfectionist, Moore’s meticulous preparation also means long periods of incubation, wearing a tune in like a new guitar until there can be no doubt about its place in the fold. So much so, in fact, that Moore didn’t hesitate to re-record the album until it felt right: “We tried it in two different recording studios, and the third time we did it down in Declan’s house in Cork. Just from the time we kicked off, I knew we had it, which was fabulous. We both knew it was happening. I mean it is a bit of a cliché, but in a way, this is a series of photographs of what Declan and I have been doing for the last couple of years.”
Having such an inclination towards the heart of a well-written song, crossing paths with the penmanship of Bob Dylan may have always seemed inevitable. Covering the likes of Morrissey, on the other hand, may come as a surprise. “I was talking about my ambivalence towards America, the fact that I’ve got wonderful American friends whom I love dearly. I love being in America, I love gigging there, I love a lot of its culture and art. And yet, the behaviour of some Americans appals me…at the moment, it’s a very frightening country.” Having been a major part of the “When Bush Comes to Shove” protest gig last year, and recently organising a benefit concert for New Orleans, it’s clear Moore harbours a bittersweet relationship with the US – one that led him to an acquaintance with the ex-Smiths singer’s song at just the right time. “I think I said to my wife: ‘I’d love to write something about my mixed feelings for America’. So she just played it for me and I said: ‘Jesus, I wonder if I could sing that’. And then it started,” Moore smiles, “…the long, agonising journey of trying to learn a Morrissey song.”
Moore has enjoyed a fruitful association with some of Ireland’s finest songwriters, and so unsurprisingly, when the Kildare-man applies himself to the work of John Spillane and Wally Page, it’s an entirely natural fit. The country-tinged macabre of the world of The Handsome Family, however, is another connection that one might not have foreseen with Moore. “I heard the Handsomes singin’, and I was instantly smitten… I mean they are very dark, but sometimes they manage to be hilariously funny simultaneously, and I love that. It’s great sometimes to be breaking your hole laughing at something so incredibly dark.”
One of the two Handsome Family tracks to feature on “Burning Times,” “Peace in the Valley Once Again” imagines an end to the world’s all-consuming concrete sprawl with an apocalyptic vision where only insects remain. The rather serene contemplation bookends matters nicely by answering the almost despondent call of Natalie Merchant’s “Motherland” at the album’s beginning. Despite not being his own songs, everything that lies between and around those two points is distinctly Christy Moore. Perhaps it’s that there are universal themes at the foundation of many of these songs, or maybe it’s just the feel that Moore’s voice lends to them, but he has found a way to make the work of Merchant, Richard Thompson, and Joni Mitchell sound like they were once traditional Irish folk songs. In fact, finding that means to add eloquence to shards of life-changing memories and heartbreaking imperfection – the fabric of Ireland’s character – is what makes Moore the iconic storyteller that he is. In his own words, though, cohesion and the themes that announce themselves from it only arrive as an afterthought: “I don’t set out to make a concept album…I hope that in the recording, sometimes unbeknownst even to myself, one will actually emerge and there will be a vibe that will go through an album. But it’s just twelve individuals that’ve been brought together, and hopefully, will hang well that way.”
As a whole, there is a duality at play within “Burning Times” – a mixture of nostalgia for the craic and biting statements that can touch a nerve unexpectedly. An expert at knowing how to prick the listener’s consciousness, Moore knows that the right moment to do so is just when you’re at your most comfortable. “…I suppose that would be my approach,” he ponders, as if he had never thought of it that way. “But I think you’ve got to be very careful how you do it…you can’t go straight from the abuse of children into ‘The Craic Was Ninety In The Isle Of Man’, we have to move gently from topics that deserve sensitivity to bit of lunacy.”
Stepping seamlessly from the warmth of “Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar” to tales of injustice within a minute, the proportion of this balance on “Burning Times” acutely represents the essence of Moore’s live experience. “My impression of the atmosphere around the countries I do is that there’s usually a fairly happy aul’ buzz around the hall when it’s over, a lot of smiling faces. So that seems to be the way it works; we seem to be able to present a mixture of songs, some of which reflect on heavy subjects, and we manage to do it in a way that also allows us to have a good night and to enjoy ourselves.” Even still, Moore is always prepared to pick up a lesson or two along the way: “I remember a long time ago in the Point I got stuck in some kind of a rut. I played ‘Farewell to Pripchat’ and then I did ‘The Middle of the Island’, and this guy shouts up: ‘For feck’s sake Christy, would ye ever lighten up!’ Just this voice booming down the Point: ‘Bloody lighten up man’. But he was right…and it was a magic moment.”
Taken from Trinity News, November 2nd 2005