There's A Waltz

Ultan Conlon

Darksideout Records, 2020

http://ultanconlon.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/22/2020

If there’s one thing we can learn from the current moment—besides the importance of competent, ethical leadership—I hope it’s the beauty of simplicity. We humans have such a propensity for overcomplicating everything we touch, and for valuing material things over moments, experiences, and memories.

Moment, experiences, and memories form the heart of Irish singer-songwriter Ultan Conlon’s fourth studio album There’s A Waltz. On a stateside swing in 2016 Conlon played several shows in Los Angeles, where he met contemporary folk ace Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek, Fiction Family, solo). Their musical rapport culminated in this album, with Watkins providing warm, organic production while contributing acoustic and electric guitar, mellotron and wurlitzer, and backing vocals to the album’s earthy Celtic-folk sound.

In terms of Conlon’s style, fellow Irishman Glen Hansard would be an obvious point of reference for American audiences, but more in the tenor and phrasing than in the substance. Where Hansard himself has grown tired of his proclivity for earnest love ballads, Conlon’s songs are both more contemplative and more philosophical in nature, ruminations that feel eerily prescient in their diagnosis of the issues now troubling humanity’s collective psyche.

“The Long Mile” and the title track, for two, ponder the pros and cons of solitude, how we long for connection but often end up with regrets, the former a spare acoustic number and the latter a mid-tempo meditation. “Through the age of loneliness we have come / Back down a road marked no return / Give my regards to everyone” sings Conlon on “There’s A Waltz,” lines that could just as easily have been drawn from a present-day lockdown diary. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In the same vein, “World From A Window” feels especially on point just now, a song Conlon started while watching his cat observing life outdoors from a window, before realizing how much it resembled his own behavior, observing humanity through his phone, rather than engaging directly. Countering this tendency is “Moments In Time,” a mid-tempo reminder to be fully present in our lives so that we can savor moments “made of dust and light.” In between, Sara Watkins’ harmony vocals put the cherry on top of first-half highlight “Don’t Let Love Slip Away,” a gorgeous folk-rock tune whose rippling chorus immediately reminds of the Jayhawks.

The second half, beginning with “World From A Window,” is stronger still. “In The Blink Of An Eye” contrasts our everyday struggles with the knowledge that everything we devote so much energy and angst to can all disappear in an instant. Then second-half highlight “Where The Shadows Outgrow The Light” juxtaposes warm, upbeat music with a spiraling-downward lyric (“If I could cry out it would be a cry in despair”), its sweeping melody beautifully sung and arranged. Up next, “Sparks Of The Divine” offers a lovely, lilting mid-tempo number about those special moments when things come together and jolt us with the sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

The album closes with “A Landslide,” a spare, piercing look behind the curtain of modern existence: “We’ve been playing ourselves forever now / Acting each time we’re out and about” / You gotta be in for the big kill / Everyone has to get ahead in the madding crowd.” And then the landslide arrives and wipes out all the pretention and selfishness that we’ve allowed to obscure what’s really important. It’s a song recorded many months ago that feels like it could have been written yesterday, commenting on the extraordinary moment we’re all now inhabiting. 

In addition to shaping this album’s gently burnished sound, Sean Watkins helped Conlon assemble a crack studio band featuring Don Heffington (drums, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams), Sebastien Steinberg (bass, Iron and Wine, K.D. Lang), Gabe Witcher (fiddle, Paul Simon, Beck), Rich Hinman (pedal steel, K.D. Lang, St. Vincent), Tyler Chester (organ and piano, Jackson Browne, Andrew Bird) and sister Sara on backing vocals.

At a time when many people are drawn to comfort foods both literal and figurative, There’s A Waltz feels like just the album we need, a thoughtful, unhurried meditation on solitude and connection, love and loss, endowed with a warmth and authenticity that can’t be faked or synthesized. I believed every word.

Rating: B+

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