Loreena McKennitt,
The Book of Secrets
(Warner Bros./Quinlan Road, 1997)

Ever since discovering Lorenna McKennitt my sophomore year in high school, I've been collecting whatever albums of hers I could lay my hands on. I was usually the first among a new group of friends who had heard of her, and I quickly pressed her CDs or songs, in the guise of mixes, on my new friends. The unique quality of her music, whether it felt antique or unexpectedly contemporary, always succeeded in catching my heart and making my feet dance.

The Book of Secrets is certainly a worthy addition to the canon. From the "Prologue" to the final "Dante's Prayer," each song adds another layer to the whole. In many ways, the album hums with more tangible energy than is perhaps usual for McKennitt, most similar to The Mask and the Mirror than the more subdued The Visit or her earlier releases. This album also has the feel of being the product of a confident and practiced artist and therefore flows almost flawlessly through its run.

The most surprising aspect of this album was its journey toward mainstream audiences, albeit through a dance version of the infectious "The Mummer's Dance." I was astonished when I first heard the tune blaring out of my car radio on the standard rock/alt mix station here in Boston.

To all of us who've loved her work for a long time, the respect and recognition is long overdue, but in many ways such popularity has never had anything to do with McKennitt's music. The Book of Secrets is a reminder McKennitt will continue to unfailingly turn out excellent compositions.

"The Mummer's Dance" certainly sets a rollicking beat for the album, and the rhythm is continued through the instrumental "Marco Polo" (I dare anyone not to at least wiggle their toe to that), the extended and deliciously dramatic "The Highwayman," and the calmer but no less sway-inducing "Night Ride Across the Caucasus."

The slower pieces, "Skellig," "La Serenissima" and "Dante's Prayer," are filled with no less energy, but the power is finer tuned to provoke emotion rather than movement. "Dante's Prayer" especially brims over, not surprisingly considering the title, with a kind of yearning serenity, made more lush by McKennitt's addition of sampling from the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir.

Once again McKennitt has provided her listeners with elaborate liner notes, no less beautifully designed than those contained in The Visit and The Mask and the Mirror. The album, of course, stands alone as music, but the notes often provide a clue to the seeds of where the songs came from as well as glimpses of this artist's life.

As always, the liner notes not only give the listener a clue to McKennitt's state of mind, but also her geographical inspiration. In this case, the notes take the form of journal entries from her various stops around the globe. Particularly aware of the broad reach of the Celts, she draws inspiration from whatever landscape she's travelling through -- Athens, Istanbul, Cornwall, Inismore, Venice and even the view from the Trans-Siberian Railway make appearances on the album. This collection, compared with the more narrowly Middle Eastern-influenced The Mask and the Mirror, is more diverse in its sound, though all is contained within McKennitt's particular slant of composing.

The pomegranate which graces the artwork of The Book of Secrets is an apt visual representation of the album, full of a tart and sweet flavor and rich color.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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