William Butler Yeats, a conflicted soul and superb poet, once wrote about the “yarragh.” For Yeats, the yarragh was a cry of the heart, a haunting and haunted sound that could be found in Celtic (and particularly Irish) song and poetry. It was sorrow and lamentation for what had been lost, and for centuries of foreign oppression. It was anger and self-righteousnessness, a loud and belligerent cry that insisted on the inherent dignity and worth of a people. In short, it was soul, but soul with a particularly nationalistic fervor.
It’s a sound I’ve been seeking out for most of my adult life, ever since I heard Van Morrison sing “Listen to the Lion” for the first time, heard him break free of language altogether and engage in the kind of feral moaning and roaring that was alternately frightening and thrilling. Van has the yarragh, and he can almost always be counted on to let it rip on through once or twice per album. Sadly, his latest album is utterly lacking in anything other than cliches and anemic R&B horn arrangements, so I’ve been forced to do some soul searching in other places.
It should be noted that the stamp of authentic Irishness is not a guarantee of the yarragh. Bono, undoubtedly Irish, doesn’t have the yarragh. Neither do The Chieftains, Ireland’s chief exporter of jigs and reels to the PBS world. Nor should it be all that surprising that the yarragh has occasionally crossed the Irish Sea and taken root in Scotland. In any event, sometimes it can be found in some unlikely places. Here are three artists/bands that have the yarragh. I listened to them all yesterday, nursed my celebratory Guinness, and remembered why St. Patrick was one feisty, soulful missionary.
For my (increasingly inflated) Euros, Damien Dempsey is the best Irish soul singer since Van Morrison, and his last three albums – Seize the Day, Shots, and To Hell or Barbados – have the same vocal voltage as Van at his ‘70s peak. He pushes way over into the red on the yarragh meter. There’s a very Irish thing going on in this music – taking one-syllable words and stretching them out over, say, seventeen notes. That gives the yarragh room to maneuver, and it bursts through in almost every one of Dempsey’s songs. His lyrics and narrative skills alone are enough to recommend this music. But oh, the voice is a force of nature.
As a poet from the oppressive occupying nation once stated, “What’s in a name?” In the case of Glasgow indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, thankfully not too much. It’s a dreadful moniker for a band, conjuring up images of quivering whiskers and Farmer MacGregor’s garden patch. No matter. The songs on the band’s second album The Midnight Organ Fight (out on Fat Cat Records in mid-April) have the yarragh. “Jesus is a just a Spanish boy’s name,” lead singer Scott Hutchison laments. “How come one man got so much pain?” That’s heading for yarragh territory right there, but Hutchison clinches it with that winsome Scots brogue and an untamed, keening tenor that will make your hair stand on end. Disguised as a typical indie rock band, Frightened Rabbit have more soul than any band I’ve heard recently. I can’t wait to explore their debut album, which I’ve yet to hear.
Sinead O’Connor’s peripatetic career is a controversial and sometimes sad one, an ongoing chronicle of greatness and missed opportunity. She hasn’t had the yarragh for a while now, and the last sighting was a couple of fleeting glimpses on her massive 1990 hit album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. But oh my God, that debut album The Lion and the Cobra has it in soulful spades. And on songs such as “Mandinka,” “Jerusalem,” and “Troy” she stomps all over her confessional material and does W.B. Yeats proud. It’s an irresisitable combination -- those big doe eyes, that big bald head, and that big, howling, beautiful mess of a voice.