It’s hard to forget the first impression.
There was a time in my life when I was a Clannad fiend. A friend of mine from high school was enthusiastic about them, and it rubbed off on me. I had just about every album, including a number of permutations of their greatest hits.
But the album that was my entry point into the group’s work was Macalla.
Released in 1985, Macalla was Clannad’s second album as a reinvented pop group. The band recorded six albums of traditional material in the ’70s, but in 1981, it was the first artist to crack the UK Top 5 with a song sung entirely in Irish.
The theme to “Harry’s Game” marked Clannad’s transition from traditional interpreters to original songwriters. “Harry’s Game” would break the band in the US a decade later, when the song was featured in an ad for Volkswagen.
But long before younger sister Enya fashioned herself as a Celtic mystic, the band of family members — brothers Ciaran and Pol Brennan, sister Maire and uncles Noel and Padraig Duggan — was already exploring the depths of reverb.
And Macalla soaks in it.
Later Clannad albums — particularly Sirius and Anam — revealed the band’s penchant for filler. Macalla, on the other hand, is a consistently well-written album.
“Caislean Oir” sets the tone, with the band’s trademark harmonies processed to sound like Gregorian chant sung in a cavernous monastery. It then segues into “The Wild Cry”, which quickly establishes the pop half of Clannad’s folk-pop sound.
“Closer to Your Heart” is the obvious single from the album, a mighty good one at that. “In a Lifetime” features U2’s Bono, and maybe it’s his presence that made the group decide to sound bombastic on this track.
The rest of the album straddles the line between the group’s folk past and its pop future. “Buchaill On Eirne” is a traditional tune performed with minimal electronics. “Journey’s End” gets driven by a buyoant Celtic beat.
“Almost Seems (Too Late To Turn)” and “Northern Skyline”, on the other hand, are so ethereal, Enya could have covered them on her own albums.
Maire Brennan’s sweet, fragile singing grounds the band’s music, even when it threatens to get too clichéd. There’s a weight to her voice that doesn’t get lost in all the ambience.
Macalla is one of those albums a listener can return to after a long while and still call to mind the magic of its first impression. “Macalla” means echo in Irish, and it’s an apt description of how it affects a listener.