Ailbhe Reddy – Personal History
Alternative Folk | Alternative Rock
This review began with a trip down memory lane. The site has been around long enough now to have its own fair share of “personal history”, and I found myself reflecting upon it while listening to this record. Casting my mind back to 2017 (which feels like an age ago now), when up and coming Irish singer/songwriter Ailbhe Reddy got the award for best new artist from an enthusiastic but insignificant music blog. I certainly stand by that choice, especially now having listened to her long awaited debut album, but looking back there’s a lot of other choices that I’m far less confident in.
Reading some of the pieces that I wrote back then, how poorly written they were and how they barely scratched the surface of a lot of records, they feel like the work of a completely different person. Even so, I’m not sure I’ll ever go back and change or delete them. Ultimately they were all steps on the journey that led to right now. Every poorly written piece led to me being a better writer, and even if the words don’t sit right with me now they we’re written from the heart at the time, I said exactly what I wanted to in that moment. In a way, the central message of Personal History was already buzzing round my head before I’d even properly listened to it.
Cliche as it sounds, this is an album which takes you on a journey. One whose final destination is the realisation that mistakes are all just part of a learning process; something to be embraced, rather than something to hide away and be ashamed of. Much like how bravery is all about facing fear rather than the absence of it, proper growth and self-acceptance don’t come from trying to be perfect, they come from owning your faults and cutting yourself some slack when you’re struggling. This epiphany really hits home in the last two tracks: ‘Late Bloomer’ and ‘Self Improvement’. Lines like “You’re not backing a loser, I’m just a late bloomer” and “I spent my twenties, trying to accept these vulnerabilities don’t make me weak” share the importance of being patient and forgiving with yourself.
The road to this realisation is a rocky one though, and much of the record consists of Ailbhe facing her failings and struggles head on. With rugged no-nonsense guitar work, the aptly titled opening track ‘Failing’ explores the frustration that comes from being stuck in one of those times in your life where it just feels like nothing is going your way. Bittersweet indie rocker ‘Between Your Teeth’ reflects on the heavy burden that comes from words left unspoken, and is home to some expressive bass lines in the verses and some gorgeous backing vocals at its climax. The bright and airy ‘Time Difference’ shares the struggles that come with maintaining a long distance relationship while on tour, while the album’s most energetic and eclectic cut ‘Looking Happy’ deals with how hard it is to be forgiving with yourself when everyone you know is projecting some perfect facade on social media.
I think what really sells the message behind the album is just how natural and uncomplicated the music feels. Personal History is so often understated and just the right amount of rough around the edges. Not once do we have flashy arrangements or overly polished production pop up to distract from the emotional core of the songs. Ailbhe gives herself nowhere to hide, and shows the world and herself just how far she’s come come by allowing herself to be vulnerable. ‘Walk Away’ is probably the finest example; with some soft piano and hand clap percussion as her only accompaniment for much of the track, we find her baring her heart in earnest. Her vocals are really one of a kind; sweet with a dash of venom, controlled yet imbued with emotion, and more than enough to make every track simply magnetic. It’s the raw and honest approach that makes this album. It never sets out to wow you, and that’s precisely why it does.
Ironically for a record written with failure in mind, it succeeds in just about every measure. Greater than the sum of its parts, this is one of those albums that stays with you. More than that, it’s the kind of album that grows with you. Self improvement is an ever ongoing process. There are always more mistakes to be made, more lessons to be learnt, and there’ll always be tough times where we forget to go easy on ourselves. Whether you need an album to remind you to be patient and forgiving with yourself when you’re struggling, or one that lets you look back at past mistakes and realise just how far you’ve come, Personal History will provide.