Review: Aoife O’Donovan Grasps the American Woman’s History of Power & Trauma on ‘All My Friends’

Aoife O'Donovan © Sasha Israel
Aoife O'Donovan © Sasha Israel

Christine's Take

8 Music Quality
8 Sonic Diversity
7 Production
10 Content Originality
10 Lyricism
9 Memorability
9 Arrangement
With ‘All My Friends,’ prolific folk songwriter and gleaming vocalist Aoife O’Donovan has produced a lyrical ode to women in just nine songs – though the number of phase shifts in each could have made it twelve or thirteen – in the folk tradition of breathing poetry into politics.
Stream: ‘All My Friends’ – Aoife O’Donovan

Prolific folk songwriter and gleaming vocalist Aoife O’Donovan has produced a lyrical ode to women in just nine songs –

though the number of phase shifts in each could have made it twelve or thirteen – in the folk tradition of breathing poetry into politics.

Inspired by commissions to write music commemorating the anniversary of the 19th Amendment for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and Massachusetts’ FreshGrass Foundation, O’Donovan pored through the letters and speeches of activist and suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, who founded the League of Women Voters in 1920.

All My Friends - Aoife O'Donovan
All My Friends – Aoife O’Donovan

Released March 22, 2024 via Yep Roc Records, All My Friends is O’Donovan’s first self-produced album and the Grammy Award winner’s fourth solo studio album. O’Donovan has said she doesn’t see herself as a political songwriter, instead choosing to reflect shared history. This album does just that: it appreciates, contemplates and execrates the story of American women.

Perhaps nothing can speak better to the sheer natural timbre of O’Donovan’s voice than the first few bars of opening track “All My Friends.” It’s easy to mistake the melodic three-part arrangement as tight vocal harmonies – O’Donovan is, after all, one of the three superheroes in the supergroup I’m With Her, where transcendent layered vocals abound.

But listen more closely and you’ll realize it’s actually O’Donovan, a horn and a violin. And then, are they joined by a flute? Perhaps a recorder? This reviewer’s simple ears can’t be sure, so tightly woven are these lilting parts.

Here O’Donovan sets out her thesis: Woman has fought bravely, and hard, so damn hard, for her place in American society. And now, in 2024, she is watching her work crumble.

All my friends
I always knew and so did you
That we were going to war
Now years have passed
I’m trying to remember who it’s for
If we reach 36
Or if the door gets slammed
At least I know we’ve tried

Aoife O'Donovan © Sasha Israel
Aoife O’Donovan © Sasha Israel

Second track “Crisis” takes us back to 1916, evoking a vision of women gathering to march, to protest for their rights to vote. The song asks women to “Gather round, girls, lemme tell you about the crisis that is here…And at the end I almost see, I see our final victory.”

The first part of the song is a hopeful, clip-clopping beat backed by rising strings, an optimistic call to rise up victorious. But the bridge transitions to an ominous 6/8 rhythm, its words despondent.

There was a man in West Virginia
And someone asked him what he thought
He said, “We’ve been keeping women down
so long it would feel so queer to not”
If someone asked his wife the same question
Here is what she’d say:
“We’ve been down so long we gotta stay this way.”
Therein lies the movement of those who say “Nay.”

War Measure” has the ring of spoken word, with a cadence that reads as though it’s been taken verbatim from letters of support to Chapman Catt – and well they may have been. “Someone to Follow” similarly feels like a testament of support, but perhaps coming from Chapman Catt’s own mother:

On the night you were born I cradled you
I held you in my arms
And with every planet in Capricorn
I knew you’d sound the alarm

Aoife O'Donovan © Sasha Israel
Aoife O’Donovan © Sasha Israel

Women of any century can relate to “The Right Time”: The feeling that Important Things are poised to happen, pulsing and ready to burst, but something always stands perfectly in the way, as if put there purposefully by something out to get you. Structural sexism wasn’t yet the term in the early 20th Century, so instead the speaker simply says, “Oh when’s it gonna be the right time, be the right time for me?

On the topic of modern terms for age-old biases, “Daughters” is a chilling ode to intergenerational trauma and attachments between women – women of different social classes, of different generations, and how they lift each other or tear each other down.

Now the edifice of women’s liberty
It is almost complete
But protected and serene the rich women are still
Honing their malevolent skills
Growing bolder in their treachery
Selling for free
There are those who are willing to vilify
Their sisters ‘cross the land- they declare them too quick to cry
Saying don’t trust them with the privilege
Don’t even try

We’re greeted by a surprise electric bass on “America, Come,” bringing us sonically into modernity along with lyrics that get to the root of our country’s long history with democracy. The song begs us to define and commit to democratic values – values which many believe recent years have eroded or broken altogether. “Over the Finish Line” drives this point home, with Anaïs Mitchell adding backing vocals on the sad ballad that ultimately ends in desolation.

What is this democracy?
Carrie I fear that we’ve made our beds
If I could change a mind, whose mind?
If I could make something to get us o’er the finish line
We’re living in hard times, feeling hard times, these are hard times

Aoife O'Donovan © Sasha Israel
Aoife O’Donovan © Sasha Israel

A distressed recording of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” leads us into the final track, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Instruments join O’Donovan’s initially lone voice until a sweeping orchestration takes over. It seems like these precise string arrangements are a pastiche, representing the elite genteel lifestyle that let William Zanzinger off with only six months in jail for Hattie Carroll’s murder.

Then “Battle Hymn” creeps eerily back in, turning the track discordant and sinister, driving home O’Donovan’s final words of warning:

Oh, but you who philosophize,
Disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.

All My Friends was produced by O’Donovan, Eric Jacobsen and Darren Schneider and features special guests including Anaïs Mitchell, Sierra Hull, Noam Pikelny, The Knights, The Westerlies, The San Francisco Girls Chorus, Alan Hampton, and Griffin Goldsmith.

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