Cormac Neeson // ‘White Feather Deluxe Edition’ // Album Review
In 2014, The Answer frontman Cormac Neeson’s life was turned upside-down when his first-born son Dabhóg arrived three months prematurely, weighing just one pound. An immediate spell in intensive care followed, lasting four months, during which he was diagnosed with having Down’s-Syndrome. Unsure as to how things would turn out, and aware that their son’s condition would present challenges and hurdles in life, both for Cormac and his wife Louise as well as for the boy himself, Cormac was plunged into traumatic uncertainty.
Thankfully, five years on, things have been flipped yet again, as Dabhóg persevered and has grown into a radiant and joyous five-year-old boy whom Neeson showers with love and affection. After staff at the Royal Hospital, Belfast saved his son’s life, Neeson got in touch with Mencap, a charity focusing on people living with learning disabilities. Mencap was such an invaluable help to the Neeson family, both in helping to expel some of the parents’ initial fears and uncertainties through early conversations and informative discussions, as well as helping Dabhóg with his daily development after he started attending the Early Years Service at the charity’s renowned Children’s Centre. Their help meant so much that Cormac went on to become an ambassador for the charity, a role he carries out with pride and respect.
The impact of the life-changing experience of his introduction to fatherhood had such a lasting and profound effect on Neeson that he sought solace in penning an autobiographical and emotional account of his inner thoughts and a meditation on life and what it’s like to bring up a child with a disability. And so, directly inspired by the complicated birth of his first-born, his decidedly uncomplicated debut solo album White Feather was released in 2019, albeit in a very limited run. November 2020 sees the album get a well-deserved deluxe edition reissue, complete with new and bonus tracks and a vinyl edition, each copy hand-signed by Cormac himself as a thank-you to those supporting him and his music.
Recorded in Nashville and mixed in Belfast, White Feather is an Atlantic-hopping blend of diverse and rich musical styles and traditions; a pleasant Celtic-Nashville trip by way of the Delta Blues, with a little Soul-searching along the way.
Opening with the title track’s first line, “Spent two weeks waiting on a heartbeat, no bigger than a small seed, biggest heart I’ve ever seen,” Neeson wastes no time in casting off any and all expectations that fans may have, inviting the listener to come on an incredibly intimate and poignant journey with him. The song is sparsely decorated, with a few glistening piano notes and some warm bass tones being the only accompaniment that his lamenting vocals need as he recounts, in turns, losing and finding hope while conquering complex emotions. Although the chorus’s lyrics are repetitive and simplistic, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they almost act like a mantra to invite hope and positive change into one’s life.
The second track, Do Something Today was recently released as a single to mark the album’s reissue, and deservedly so. It’s a meditative reflect-and-take-stock song about doing something with your life instead of letting it pass you by, set to peacefully unhurried, lumbering drums and beautiful lap-steel guitar played by Tennessee musician John Heinrich. Cormac is joined by backing singers as he builds up to the chorus, and right after he launches into some heaven-by-way-of-hell high notes caked in grit that are delivered so powerfully as to be goosebump-inducing. Despite the solemnity that the record is seeped in, the line “Gotta do something today – but it can wait until tonight” shows that despite his ordeals, his sense of humor remains intact.
Don’t Wait Up is another welcome shot of positivity. The song’s immediate opening notes bear a resemblance to Tracy Chapman’s immortal Fast Car, as does its theme of reflecting on life and comparing the past with the present. Except, rather than a lament, Neeson’s number is a song of gratitude for how things have turned out, replete with grounding conviction in how he delivers the lines. The music is layered nicely, culminating in a pulsing, thumping drum beat, a lightly chugging guitar, and an organ flourish threatening to run wild, which all conspire to make you want to move, even if it’s just a nod of the head or a tap of the toe.
The album’s stand-out track is Broken Wing, a heartfelt, loving tribute that Neeson penned about and to his beloved son Dabhóg, inspired by a story that Nashville legend Blue Millar (who co-wrote the song) recounted about a family of birds that lived in his back garden after his wife helped take care of, feed, and shelter a small chick that had a broken wing. Finding an emotional resonance with the story when relating it to his own family’s circumstances, Neeson was inspired, and the duo immediately went into the studio to work on the track. Dabhóg’s mum Louise even lent her voice to the song, joining the backing singers hand-picked by Neeson, and this adds an extra dimension of sweetness and sentimentality to the song.
Furthering his associations with Mencap, a portion of the Broken Wing’s profits were donated to the charity. A short documentary was made about the song and the writing of the album, during which Neeson got a tattoo of trisomy 21, the chromosome that leads to Down’s-Syndrome and he explained that it’s his mission to normalize the condition, and how he’d love to live in a world where Down’s-Syndrome is accepted and understood more than currently is. A splendid live performance of Broken Wing performed at The Duncairn also features in the documentary, showing how well the songs of White Feather would translate to a live environment.
Sweet Gentle Love is another stellar example of Neeson’s delivery. He takes what on the surface is a fairly basic, incredibly simplistic chorus; “It’s pure, sweet gentle love”, one which would flounder embarrassingly in lesser hands, and sings it with enough sincerity and raw tenderness that he not only makes it work, but successfully transforms it into an earworm that gently burrows into your head and stays with you for days. Some of the verse lyrics, as with other songs on the album, are emblematic of his poetic chops, such as the indelibly intimate, “I hope the world outside is as warm as your breath on mine.”
In Home to Me, a tender, hopeful love song that features some incredibly-controlled high notes, Neeson channels his inner Van Morrison with the evocative line, “A mystical silence of a forest at midnight… where lovers can dream”.
Another accomplished song comes in the form of A Song That Lives Forever. Cormac’s pain is laid bare, with lyrics such as “the whiskey I pour, and these minor chords, build a bridge I won’t cross” and “these words on the page cry nothing but pain, and I don’t know who to trust” are so raw and hard-hitting that it’s hard not to become overwhelmed. Certainly, a treat if one were lucky enough to witness it in a live setting.
The album continues much in the same vein, but songs such as Oh Son, as well as new tracks Blue Beyond the Grey and Sometimes You Gotta Make a Change inject it with some much-needed energy, providing a counterweight to balance its sentimentality, preventing it from going stale and keeling over into the realm of soppiness. Whether it be infectious rhythmic guitar, soulful backing singers, the pluck of a banjo, the wail of a harmonica, a fast-fingered organ, or layered sing-along vocals that wouldn’t be amiss in a Southern roadhouse blues bar, these tracks imbue the record with vast cultural influences and help to keep it sounding fresh and rejuvenating.
Indeed, writing, recording, and releasing the album seems to have been both a vitally cathartic experience and an incredibly rejuvenating process for Neeson. The reissue is a boon since its original release was so limited that many may have missed it completely. Despite maybe being the exact opposite of what fans of The Answer may expect, they may be equally surprised by just how musically rich White Feather is, the kind of record that rewards multiple listenings and grows in stature over time. The album shows the man is teeming with potential, and it could work as the foundation for a follow-up that could prove to be even more impressive. And, considering The Answer hasn’t gone away for good, the future seems ripe for Neeson’s taking.
Reviewed by Mark Russell
The deluxe reissue of White Feather is available from Friday 6th November, via Social Family Recordsavailable here: