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B-Sides: Susan McKeown, "Singing in the Dark"

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There is, in my opinion, a right way and a wrong way to advertise Irish singer Susan McKeown's album Singing in the Dark. Calling it "a work exploring Creativity, Suffering and the Pursuit of Happiness," as her website does, is the wrong way. The project loses its power in those highfalutin capital letters, veering instead to the inspirational spoken-word side of the record aisle. The right way would be to say something more along the lines of, "If this album had existed six years ago, it could have changed the entire course of my life for the better."

Susan McKeown, a white woman, wears a printed dress and looks at the camera. Her album cover reads Singing in the Dark in dark text

McKeown is a Dublin native, now based in New York, who took seven years arranging and planning this project around the theme of melancholy. If that makes the album sound like a downer, don't be fooled. The songs, which are all actually famous poems McKeown has put to music, are about grappling with depression but finding hope in the dark. Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer; Anne Sexton, Leonard Cohen, and Lord Byron are a few of the writers whose work appears here, spanning many genres of music but all in the theme of those cheesy capitalized topics above.

So here's where it gets personal, as it's probably bound to when talking about an album centered around mental illness and creativity, two incredibly subjective and controversial human experiences. I spent several years of teenage-dom at the dark end of the tunnel (you know, the one that's supposed to have a light at the end of it), resulting in my late teens in a diagnosis of depression and Bipolar Disorder. That end of the tunnel was, without gushing too thoroughly, real dark. I dropped out of school, moved home, and spent a lot of time looking for allies. The first thing I thought, when I listened to Singing in the Dark in my kitchen on a sunny day last week, five years out from my diagnosis and three from my last depressive episode, was "Oh. Here's one. I can stop looking now." 

I don't want to overstate this situation. I had allies when I was most sick, and I have many of them to this day. Some of them are people and some of them are books and albums. But what I do want to emphasize in my highlighting of Singing in the Dark is that McKeown's work on this album is such that I took retroactive comfort from it, and will take comfort in it from now on. As I mentioned above, she took seven years creating this album, choosing poems and songs that speak achingly and openly of battling melancholy. She infused them with her powerful voice—at home in blues, jazz, folk, or pop arrangements—and never allows the tone of the album to drop below gently hopeful. The tunnel she's singing from has a clearly visible light at the end of it. Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," reimagined as a ballad, finds "the crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." Gwyneth Lewis, in Angel of Depression, writes "Oh yes I'm broken/But my limp is the best part of me," which McKeown sings in a gripping, exonerative soprano. Where the authors offer (or found) no reprieve, McKeown injects it with her vibrato-rich, opera-trained voice and lighter acoustic arrangements.

Even if McKeown were not the excellent musician she is, this project would be worth attention for its dedication to awareness, education and support of those living with mood disorders. The liner notes are prefaced by Dr. Kay Jamison, author of Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Jamison has spent her career writing about the exoticization of mood disorders among artists and writers, and lends the project a powerful medical voice. At the end of the liner notes, McKeown writes that a portion of proceeds from this album will benefit four mental health alliance foundations: National Alliance of Mental Illness, Fountain House, Bring Change 2 Mind, and the Mood Disorder Support Group. I haven't written a fan letter in about a decade, but I'm writing one now.

Here's a video of Susan talking about the album (disclaimer: the visuals are pretty cheesy):

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