The second album from gay-loved chanteuse, Karen Egan mostly appears to be a lighthearted hop, skip and a jump through genres, but there’s something much deeper and darker at work, says Brian Finnegan.
According to the Oxford English dictionary, a ‘charlatan’ is “a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill.” For the title of Karen Egan’s sophomore album, she translates the word into French, Charlatanne, a play on her much-loved live performances in which she often claims various ethnic origins and sings in ‘native’ languages that are wholly understandable to English speakers. Indeed, Egan has adopted a new language into her repertoire over the past few years, working with the Finnish theatre company, Rakastajat-teatteri, who translated and produced her first play, Kippis (Cheers), this year to wide critical acclaim.
Much as Egan hops, skips and jumps from language to language in her live shows, the tracks on Charlatanne bound from genre to genre, as her 2006 debut, Very Very did. But while that album was an eclectic mix of covers dotted with a self-penned song or three, Charlatanne sees Egan exercise her writing chops on a collection of entirely original numbers, and what writing chops they are.
The opening track, ‘For a Minute’, is a bittersweet tango about a forbidden affair that has nowhere to go except between the sheets, and as a song with a theme that’s at odds with the crescendos of its blissful beat, it sets out Egan’s stall. On the chorus of the title track, she describes “a flamboyant deceiver, who’ll make you believe her” – scratch beneath the flamboyant mix Egan serves up on Charlatanne and you’ll find something much more melancholy at play.
Swooning guitar-strokes drive ‘The Moon is Falling Down’, a lounge song about love’s first bloom that has its lovers drifting away into fantasy and isolation. A couple of songs later, Egan’s ‘Moving On’, is a country break-up style, and then she’s singing a jazzed up number about a man who does everything but tell her he loves her.
This album, however, is at its absolute best, when the tone of the song matches the melancholia, allowing the ache at the heart of Egan’s voice free reign. ‘Jealousy’ is a beat jazz cut in which a “serpent slowly surrounds” an obsessed lover. ‘Drowning’ ends with the words “my tears and your waves merge as one”, making it one of the saddest songs about falling in head over heels in love ever, while the sublime ‘Second Life’ is a piano and string-filled ballad that details disappointed love with heartbreaking poetry.
Charlatanne closes (almost) with a kind of redemption, in which Egan repeats the mantra, ‘I Am Love’ with chorus of friends singing along, building a song that transforms heartbreak into a thing great beauty. When the bonus track, ‘Mä rakastan sua, mut sä et mua’, kicks in, it’s a shock to the system. A reminder of Egan’s comedy origins with The Nualas, it’s a super-catchy rap taking an errant boyfriend to task, in both Finnish and English.
Essentially, although it doesn’t sound like it, Charlatanne is a break-up album, and as such it plums depths you wouldn’t expect from an artist who first made her name in Ireland with comedy and cabaret. Egan is confidently throwing her hat into a new ring, while holding on to the stylings of her original stomping ground. She doesn’t need to, though. This album is a pleasure from beginning to end, with mature, heartfelt honesty about the vagaries of life and love written all over it.
Karen Egan’s ‘Charlatanne’ is currently on release. Find it on iTunes here.
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