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Diana Darby


If I could leave this page blank and somehow imbue it with tension and mystery and heartbreak, like an empty room that once contained great suffering, I might begin to be able to communicate a sense of singer-songwriter Diana Darby's new album, The Magdalene Laundries. Like its namesakes--the Catholic institutions where unmarried mothers, prostitutes, or young women simply deemed too pretty or flirtatious for their own or society's good were for all intents and purposes interred, performing hard labor and enduring abuse sometimes their whole lives--Darby's third album fairly trembles with the sound of the wretched, the lonely, the fragile soul.

It seems that Darby's musical journey has been one of stripping down, falling away, unearthing the bones of her songs and soul. The Magdalene Laundries is her barest album yet and her most unearthly. She rarely sings above a splintery whisper--only in her 30 second lead track, "Skin," does she bring some heat to voice and hands as she stands in the shoes of a black woman. Her voice's sole accompaniment is the muted pluck of her electric guitar, apart from the occasional ping of individual piano keys or the quiet, edgy keening of a cello. It's like secretly watching a woman sing songs to herself--it's that intimate and that exposed. And like the voyeur, you can't tear yourself away: such intimacy and emptiness is just too gripping, too fascinating, even as it seems, in moments, like madness. What, you ask, will she do next?

Her lyrics on The Magdalene Laundries run simultaneously to the morbid and the redemptive, opening up poetic veins of loneliness, exploring beauty's frailty, revealing women in pain, acknowledging at every turn our mortal nature. Big subjects that in her quiet hands do not seem dramatic or overblown. There are flashes of a sort of desolate hope, as in "Bring Me All The Rabbits": "bring me / bring me / bring me / bring me / bring me / all the rabbits / before they all are dead / somewhere there are rabbits / outrunning trouble's breath..." Even one of the more optimistic songs, "I'm Wishing You Bluebirds," reveals the hint of doubt that turns innocent bluebirds into something creepier, more David Lynch than Judy Garland: "I'm wishing you bluebirds / they are so sweet / or so it seems..."

Death delivered sotto voce and beauty in mortal struggle with suffering may not be for everyone, but if you like dark meditations and bare space both pregnant and riveting, step into The Magdalene Laundries and wait for what the solitary woman does next. • Judith Edelman

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