Review: Cocooning Heart, Folk Radio UK.

There is something self-deprecating about Myles O’Reilly that belies the power and emotional reach of his music. Talking about his latest album, he has stated that he’s not trying to reinvent anything, ‘just write a good, simple song.’ Well, the songs on Cocooning Heart are certainly good. In some senses, they are simple too – lightly psychedelic, sometimes conversational folk that reclines on a foam of ambience. But there is a lot more going on than that simple description suggests. O’Reilly has released two albums of minimal ambient in the last couple of years, and his music is uniquely communicative in its own understated way: take the itchy percussion that introduces the title track, the album’s opener. It immediately establishes a position: this is music that is welcoming, enveloping, but never entirely comfortable. O’Reilly knows from his career as a filmmaker – and as an ambient musician – that there has to be something that creates a point of drama or a sustained atmosphere.

Here the drama comes from events in O’Reilly’s own life. Not long after the death of his mother in 2013, he contracted a virus that caused him to lose the use of half of his tongue. The recovery of his voice was a long and difficult process, and then the Covid pandemic caused further difficulties. He started writing songs – cathartically, alone in his attic while his wife slept – after a neighbour lent him a Moog synthesiser. This catharsis is evident throughout the album. The title track has its weeping pedal steel, its lyrics that deal in the most direct detail with O’Reilly’s own situation and the making of the album. The Most Colourful Thread In The Loom builds slowly from a minimal vocal-and-synth intro to a quiet burst of sad but hopeful energy, and then a swirl of wild and woozy synth that speaks of turmoil and of unravelling and healing.

On Shine, the drones stand off against melancholic keys, the song’s one-word chorus exploring the depths of O’Reilly’s childhood and the love of his mother. To wring such emotional resonance out of a single word is a rare gift, but it’s a gift O’Reilly carries lightly.

His voice – something he once thought he would never use again – has become a potent instrument in its own right: Songs In The Back begins in the abstract, like a piece of modern composition, but when O’Reilly begins to sing in his breathy croon the whole piece is tied together and becomes a soaring folk ballad, exploratory yet intimate. Flying Home makes use of birdsong, found sounds and soft strums to create a widescreen musical landscape that acts as a moment of escape in the deep centre of the album, but on the pretty, guitar-led Early Morning Sun the vocals begin to refocus the listener’s attention back on to the internal, and a cover of Low’s The Point Of Disgust ushers us firmly back into the cocoon. O’Reilly’s take on whispery slowcore is fittingly restrained and unsurprisingly beautiful.

O’Reilly’s musical career began with Dublin folk-pop band Juno Falls in the early 2000s, and it’s tempting to say that, with the loosely balladic feel of Cocooning Heart, he has come full-circle. But that would be disingenuous, and a circle is much too neat a way to describe a career as varied as his. It also implies some kind of closure, and while Cocooning Heart hints that healing is possible, it nonetheless wears its wounds with something like pride. Rather than a chapter in a creative body of work, it feels like the culmination of a rich and sometimes distressing variety of lived experiences. Its final song, Singing In The Shower, is about how music can turn the most mundane of those experiences into something magical. There is something gently devotional about its examination of personal relationships in terms of the human body and something utterly, breathtakingly real in its intimacy. Sometimes art floats close to the surface of real life. It isn’t always comfortable, and it must take a certain amount of courage to create. But when it comes off, as it does here on Myles O’Reilly’s Cocooning Heart, the results can be singularly fulfilling.

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