It’s not hard to get a sense of what Ciara O’Neill is going for. Her debut album is positively bedecked in the plumage of a very specific species in the singer-songwriter aviary. O’Neill, an artist from Northern Ireland who has lately been hawking her wares in the United States, brings a particular kind of broody gothicness to much of her work which may seem familiar. The title track kicks off with the sound of feet trekking through fallen leaves in, we are led to assume, some backwoods enclave of rustic spookery. O’Neill’s voice, quietly forceful and the centre of attention throughout, tells us that the singer is “knee deep in mud, all alone in my grave”, not to mention “desperately sad”. More poetics crop up about memory and sin, before a fine mix of instrumentation prevents its descent into cliche.
The track establishes the themes which come to dominate the rest of the album. On the lyrical side, we are given a Plathian excursion through vistas of misery, nature and death. Ghosts finds her “skimming stones across your bones”, while multi-part harmonies on Dead, Black tell us that “I need to be loved, I need to be held, the child in me lives in an enclosed hell”. This murky lyrical palette is applied with vigour to the majority of tracks here, and for all the sincerity with which they are delivered, the sentiments aren’t ever particularly compelling.
Similarly, for all the skill with which the music is assembled, it never quite manages to be fully cohesive. This isn’t to deny the album’s often impressive moments. Invent Me features an ominous build-up of mandolin and bass drum, which interplay well with violin as the track progresses. Elsewhere, string sections, pianos and other extraneous instrumentation are allowed breathe and develop ideas without undue hurry.
Many of ‘The Ebony Trail’s’ finest moments come when the musical and lyrical gloom is broken or tweaked. Ghosts, one of the standouts, falls closer to the romantic twee of much mainstream indie than to the grotesque lullaby of Primroses, and is much the better for it. Strange Day, a pseudo-anthemic piano ballad, and For You, a slice of more jangly guitar fare, similarly lighten the mood, even if they don’t properly astound.
On the whole, O’Neill’s first full effort is never less than a fully competent undertaking from an artist with an understanding of her craft and her vision. Every peak has an accompanying trough, however, but the larger part lies on a fairly indifferent plateau. Furthermore, it rarely manages the feat of extricating itself from the pack of similar sounding fare, and it has a bit of a hard time bringing itself to fully believe in its overarching motif of vaguely supernatural gloom.