A powerful and introspective debut from an Irish songwriter returning music again after a long hiatus.
Cork folk singer-songwriter Alan Swanwick wrote songs in his twenties a couple of decades ago but, as he puts it, life got in the way of pursuing music, at least for a while. With the help of several top West Cork musicians, ‘Astronaut,’ his debut album, tackles painful and existentially challenging subjects that he probably didn’t have the skillset to stare down in his youth.
In the musical vein of country-folk songwriter Malcolm Holcombe, Swanwick also has a hoard of experience with many stories to tell and a rough-edged voice to match, but he sounds hesitant about telling them in too much detail. He has lived long enough to lose at least one of his parents as well as other people he has loved and to see his own children grow up. The dichotomy of loss and new life plus the sheer bewilderment of it all pervades the album. “If you could only see me now / On the back of the good days / With the hard ones behind me,” he sings on ‘If You Could Only See Me Now.’
Some of the songs contain snippets of seemingly scratchy radio transmissions from far away. He is lost, with the recurrent sense of drifting, floating, and falling through space and rowing through water — all of which have been used as descriptions for what it feels like to grieve. This isn’t a mellow, enjoyable kind of Major Tom drifting; rather, it’s unsettlingly powerless. Like Anne Sexton’s Poems in ‘The Awful Rowing Toward God,’ the grieving process is a chaotic mixed one of despair and unexpected glimpses of happiness.
Jesus makes a few cameo appearances, but mostly Swanwick looks up at the stars in the night sky like a suffering insomniac searching for meaning. Is there a point to anything? Will we ever get any answers? Should we just accept our limited knowledge in this lifetime and roll with it? It’s in agnostic moments like these on ‘Rolling & Tumbling,‘ the soulful ‘Howl On,’ and the foreboding, shuffling, bayou-tinged ‘Repo Man‘ that he sounds like a gruff, fatalistic Tom Waits character: “I’m sick as a junkie and I’m proud as a queer.”
The beautifully gospel-tinged ‘Green Chapel’ drops the searching and simply looks ahead to the coming spring and hope. The song ends on a definitive guitar chord before the audio sweeps back out into distant space, looking at the big picture once again.