For most of the 20th century, Irish girls who had the bad fortune to become
pregnant out of wedlock, to be raped, or to simply seem like trouble were
sometimes shunted into the Magdalene Laundries. They might be there for
decades, forced to do the hard labor of washing and fed barely enough. They
were unable to contact friends or family, to marry, to go to school. They
were, in essence, abandoned by family, friends, lovers everyone they
knew with the full blessing of the Church. The Laundries closed in
1996, and last year, director Peter Mullen made a very affecting movie
about the subject in The Magdalene Sisters.
In her third album, Houston-born, Nashville-based songwriter Diana Darby
takes the Magdalene Laundries as her inspiration, crafting 10 fragile,
dark-timbred folk songs about hope and betrayal, imprisonment and solace.
She recorded them at home, on 4-track, stopping only when her recorder
broke. Brief, dreamlike, revelatory, these songs burrow softly into your
consciousness and stay there like memories you never knew you had.
"My dress is worn/ My skin is black/ I hear your voice I won't be back/ Why
did you take away my home?/ My mother, myself, my own," she sings in the
rough and blues-tinged "Skin." It is the most abrasive track on the disc,
distorted with static like a 1930s Southern field recording, sung in a
deeper, angrier voice, and intensely passionate. It also perfectly captures
the desolation of the girls trapped in these institutions and sets the
stage for the more thoughtful, ethereal tracks that follow.
The first of these is the lovely "Bring Me All the Rabbits," all whispered
melodies and slow-picked guitars. "Bring me all the rabbits... before they
all are dead," sings Darby, in a voice so breathy and soft that you have to
lean in to hear it, and yet so full of drama that you do lean
in. Darby borrows a folk-picked guitar motif for "Let Her Run Free,"
wringing depth and emotion out of the simple, natural melodies. The
subject matter is bleak, but the songs are not. "I'm Wishing You
Bluebirds," where she sounds, vocally, a bit like Joanna Newsom, is as
serene and hopeful as morning in a country meadow, a glimpse of heaven,
perhaps from a barred window, but liberating all the same. Lyrics are
simple, powerful and drawn from the natural world, as for instance on the
minor-key "Black Swan," where a misfit fowl stands in for misunderstood
women. Darby may have started with the extreme case of the Magdalene girls,
but her lyrics are clearly intended for other women as well, when she
writes, "Black swan/ Swimming in your pool alone/ Black swan/ Never had a home of your own/ You tried being like the other ones/ Inside, you know that you
don't belong/ You spend your nights a princess/ With the first light/ You're a
This is a wonderful album, lovely on the first listen, and gaining depth and
resonance with repeat spins.