While most artists rarely seize upon subjects as distressing as the Magdalene laundries to serve as the source of inspiration for an entire album, crafting a song cycle around these sobering events is not out of character for lo-fi singer-songwriter Diana Darby. Well into the 20th century, the laundries functioned as a hellish church-run purgatory for Ireland’s unwed mothers, rape victims and young women considered too comely or flirtatious for their own good. These women made their continuous penance, plunged into the forced labor of scrubbing clothes and branded with shame for their sexual transgressions.
In step with the darkly poetic, acutely personal meditations of Darby’s first two albums, The Magdalene Laundries, recently released by the Delmore Recording Society, probes the defacement of beauty and innocence. On 2000’s Naked Time and 2003’s Fantasia Ball, Darby held up the disfigured artifacts of human relationships and subjected them to scrutiny that was wistful and undiluted. From there, it wasn’t a large leap for the tenuous-voiced singer to explore the depths of pain other than her own.
With each successive album, Darby’s already hushed delivery has grown steadily quieter. Gone now are even the subtlest pulses of percussion or the anchoring tones of bass guitar. The Magdalene Laundries, like its predecessor, was captured on a four-track recorder in her home, often in solitude and darkness. Beyond the coarse jab of “Skin,” which serves as the album’s brief prologue, Darby’s voice never rises above a frail whisper, and she picks and strums her guitar with muted, meager strokes.
On the ethereal “Let Her Run Free,” she pleads with a voyeur to leave the object of his gaze untouched. “Black Swan” is a subdued, elegiac ode to a girl whose beauty renders her conspicuously out of place and vulnerable to abuse, while in “No Leaving Now,” with its ghostly shadow of a vocal harmony, Darby’s protagonist resignedly surrenders to an unpleasant fate. As trite as the term haunting may be as a descriptor, it is hard to imagine a song more deserving of the moniker than “The Murder,” with its eerie wails of cello and breathy mentions of a homicide weapon.
Darby is a Houston native, and her recordings are a far cry from both the sitcom scriptwriting for which she was groomed at the University of Southern California (she spent three months dreaming up plots for the popular family show Full House) and the more palatable fare yielded by early co-writing efforts following her move to Nashville. Indeed, Darby’s later songwriting derives more from the excruciating self-expression voiced in the poetry that she has habitually written since childhood.
The exaggerated quietude and restraint of The Magdalene Laundries befits the album’s subject matter. Darby’s stark arrangements hide nothing—not tape hiss, the rustling sound of someone shifting in a chair or her own desolation. Upon intent listening, a brittle and elusive beauty emerges, that of a disconsolate soul laid bare, distilled from the midst of life’s clamoring noise.