As the TV news screens abysmal and horrific scenes from Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, the UN proves toothless and Brexit threatens to open up old sores in Ireland, Northern Ireland’s Matt McGinn’s fourth album is a timely release. McGinn remembers “The Troubles” well but the impetus for recording this collection of what can be loosely called “anti war” songs came about when he saw the infamous photograph of the drowned Syrian refugee toddler, Aylan Kurdi, saying, “It triggered something in me. I felt I had to do something, and writing was all I could do.” Lessons Of War is the first fruit of his endeavours, a documentary film accompanies it but so far has only had limited showings in Northern Ireland. The album finds McGinn collaborating with a host of artists. He co-writes several of the songs with some of Ireland’s finest writers including Mick Flannery, Ciaran Lavery, Ben Glover, Stephen Scullion and Brigid O’Neill. Meanwhile, several of the musicians playing on the disc are from war torn countries or have suffered serious injury in conflict areas.
Musically, the album is more akin to McGinn’s 2015 album, Latter Day Sinner, than the bombast and anger contained in his 2018 release, The End Of The Common Man. Having said that, it’s more varied, due perhaps to the various matchmaking of writers and players, but overall McGinn retains his particular Hibernian take on folk music. This particular bent is evident on the lilting co-write with Ben Glover, I Was There, with its Van Morrison like stride and fluttering Celtic flute. It’s a good snapshot of the album actually, as McGinn refers to Belfast, the civil rights movement in Montgomery and the refugee camps in Calais, bearing witness to ongoing calamities. An Shualmhneas (One Day Of Peace) goes one further with McGinn singing in Irish Gaelic, the most traditional sounding song on the album.
Evidence of the album’s democracy is apparent when Ciara O’Neill takes the lead vocals on the moving Bubblegum, a song based on a Newry teenager’s 1981 diary as she remarks equally on Top Of The Pops and a mortar attack on the local police station. It’s a chilling reminder that war was on our doorstep not so long ago. McGinn also cedes vocals on Lyra, sung by Ria McGuire and the most oblique song here, perhaps it refers to the hope besieged and battered families still harbour against all odds, whatever, it’s undeniably beautiful with Vyienne Long’s cello quite haunting.
The more one delves into this album the more powerful it sounds. The opening song is a powerful diatribe against the politicians and money men who control, remotely, atrocities across the globe. Refugees is quite astonishing as it gently floats along with whispers of Nick Drake in its arrangement despite its grim subject. Featuring Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Barry Walsh on accordion and with some delicious double bass from Jon Thorne, it’s a magnificent song. McGinn pulls out all the stops on Child Of War which features propulsive strings and a pounding beat and is the one song here which recalls the fury of The End Of The Common Man.
Fittingly, the title song harks back to the classic days of protest songs in that it trades in slogans, questions and accusations. McGinn dresses it wonderfully as the song progresses through Celtic folk and Muslim chants for peace to all, all the while slipping in a John Lennon moment as he has a massed choir (The Citizens Of The World Choir, a London based choir of refugees from all over the world) join in. The album closes with McGinn at his best on the simple and superb When Will We Learn. A lament really but with a glimmer of hope, beautifully played and with lyrics worthy of Phil Ochs, it’s quite spine tingling and should be heard worldwide.