There was a time, not long ago, when setting the work of Yeats to music was truly the last refuge of the scoundrel or, at least, the seriously misguided.
Thankfully, in recent years, the bar has been raised dramatically. Mike Scott displayed a welcome insightful empathy on many of the songs on the Waterboys' most recent album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.
It's possible that old WB himself mightn't have been too concerned by some of the gik-handed versions of his word-perfect poems. The lad was tone deaf. But he dug the funk, so to speak. And, this geezer who was into magick before Jimmy Page, picked up on a form of chanting as an ideal way to measure out the beats, like some sort of proto rapper. A 50 Farthing, if you will.
Not everyone was impressed. Playwright George Bernard Shaw described the technique as "a nerve-destroying crooning... like an idiot banshee."
Tobin has created a blindingly brilliant album that, crucially, serves the poet well. Taking her lead from the words and the messages conveyed in each lyric, she has created an accessible work that falls in a musical spectrum somewhere between jazz-inflected Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
The ensemble playing throughout is exemplary. Piano and bass, particularly notable. Her melodies convey a sense of urgency (The Second Coming), yearning (When You Are Old) or hermetic intensity (Long-legged Fly).
From pathos to mystery, Tobin nails it.
Digging deep, actor Gabriel Byrne contributes, reciting three poems to Tobin's accompaniment. Quite wonderful. HHHHI
Tobin performs at the John Field Room, NCH, on January 16