Review: MacGillivray – Once Upon A Dirty Ear

MacGillivray - Once Upon A Dirty EarI remember one particular school assembly back when I was seven. “If you have a secret and you want to tell someone,” the teacher said, “tell it to a glass of water.” I was baffled at the time, but now I understand. It’s a means of offloading the emotional burden without the ill consequence of letting a sensitive detail roam free. With MacGillivray the sensation is the same. Often it’s just her and a solitary instrument sharing a small space, with nothing but cavernous echo for miles on either side. She lets her truths spill out gently – sometimes perforated with a shudder of melancholy as they pass through – and dribble down the gaps between piano notes and into the holes punched open by bass drums. Her tone is so soft and frail that I feel certain that I’m not supposed to hear her. Surely no one would exhibit themselves in a state of such darkness and sincerity if they thought someone might be watching?

Sometimes, her confessions are wrapped in the fantasy of an elsewhere. She’s at an underground rave (“Lonely In The Season Of Dreams”): bass drums pulse from beneath, electronics whirr like dim lighting. Her words gush onto the floor as the bodies around her sway and dance obliviously. She’s a ghost. On the title track, she’s lifted into the sky where organs and angels congeal into clouds, dragged across the air by reverb, cocooned in the fathomless privacy of 30,000ft. Even at her most lonely and melancholic, she often manages to maintain the faintest outline of grace – somewhere between the swooping flights of choral music and the pastoral warmth of folk. That’s what makes “The Trees Sleep Overtime” so difficult to listen to. She sounds exhausted to the point where her singing voice fails her, the notes slumping out of tune as her body buckles under the weight of eternal sadness. When will it end? The tone of the album never lifts her quest of confession progresses. More potent than any of these tracks is the miserable, underlying truth that gradually reveals itself: is MacGillivray destined to dwell in the dark forever, chained to the despondency of the minor key?