Beneath the Brightness

Vyvienne Long

Beneath the Brightness

Cellist and songwriter Vyvienne Long has recently released her new album 'A Lifetime of High Fives', twelve new songs featuring Laetare Vocal Ensemble and ConTempo Quartet. Anna Murray reviews.

Vyvienne Long is a Dublin-based musician and composer, probably best known for both her songs with cello (including a cover of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’) and frequent collaborations with musicians such as the Balanescu Quartet, Niwel Tsumbu and Roger Doyle as New Triangle, Dave Flynn and, most notably, with Damien Rice on his 2002 record O

While it’s rarely a good idea to judge an album by its title, A Lifetime of High Fives sets an almost impossibly optimistic tone – and one which is seemingly confirmed by opening track ‘Seahorse’. The song opens with a vibrato-infused cello line over plucked strings which provide the main rhythmic impulse, against a barely there atmospheric percussion section, followed by a sweetly lullaby-like vocal melody. The first thoughts are of the guitar figurations of folk artists like Nick Drake; though not unlike Drake, a deeper listen reveals a buried hint of darkness, even sarcasm beneath the brightness.

Even the cover of the album is deceptive. Whether intentional or not, the abstract image of receding white blobs on blue can’t help but evoke images of melting ice caps. While environmental imagery is not overt in the album, a sense of things lost or passing is: ‘I cannot fathom what has begun; we had a lifetime to feel the sun’ (Let Go’), ‘the time that we had is a good memory, keep me warm til the grave’ (‘Ten Years From Now’).

Still, the word that lingers most after listening to A Lifetime of High Fives is charming – there is an appealing intimacy to the predominance of a live acoustic sound in the cello, piano and other instrumental accompaniment. The impression is something closer to a chamber ensemble than a pop band; as well as Long’s own cello and piano work, she is joined by artists such as ConTempo Quartet. The arrangements are warm and, above all, open. The occasional addition of a chorus (Laetare Vocal Ensemble) – especially in ‘You’re the Sun’ – adds an unexpected cinematic intensity, something of the composed romanticism of classic movies and wild landscapes.

Contradicting impressions

Even in the most involved moments of the album, such as in ‘This Monster’ or the cinematic ‘You’re the Sun’, there is a liveness and transparency to the instrumental production, as if there is a direct line from plucked string to the listeners’ ears. This is an effect strangely both enhanced and undermined by Long’s voice – it is playful and bright in tone, disarmingly frank, and yet frequently embedded in a somewhat distancing subtle chorus. At other times, it sits somewhat large in the mix: if this was a live setting, it would be as if she is standing a few metres in front of her cello. This swinging from one moment to the next can be somewhat disorienting, but adds to this underlying sense of unease, a feeling of grappling with contradicting impressions. 

Long wears her heart on the sleeve in each of the 12 tracks on the album. This is most effective in songs like ‘Money Stuff’, where despite a surface brightness and a bopping rhythm, a simmering frustration is heard in frequent changes of approach and texture, from a high chorus, spoken word and percussion combo to a pulsing piano drive. Similarly with the assertive ‘This Monster’. Where it works less well is in the spoken-word-heavy ‘Enough’, a piece of atmospheric storytelling interjected by a slow chorus (with a melody too like that of Muse’s ‘Citizen Erased’), which even though it seems to strive for honesty, instead achieves only affectation. 

Despite this, A Lifetime of High Fives is a confident display of subtle songwriting – its openness and assuredness balanced against the insecurities which give it its heart.



Published on 12 December 2019

Anna Murray is a composer and writer. Her website is

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