Mike Oldfield’s ‘Return to Ommadawn’

To almost no fanfare, on January 20th, Mike Oldfield released a new album.

And not only a new album, but a ‘sequel’ to his third album Ommadawn (1975), widely held as Oldfield’s most significant musical achievement. This is a title it deserves; not only containing the excellent Ommadawn suite, but (on the album re-release anyway) the excellent tracks ‘In Dulce Jubilo’ (a Christmas carol adaptation), ‘First Excursion’, ‘Argiers’, and a silly cover of an English folk song named ‘Portsmouth.’ This was the penultimate album he structured in a two-part suite format; after 1978’s Incantations, Oldfield never wrote side-long epics again. Until now.

Having eschewed the vinyl-friendly format of his first four albums for several decades, Oldfield jumps back into the acoustic guitar, Gaelic-folkish strains of Ommadawn with enthusiasm. Return to Ommadawn features many of the same musical motifs – familiar phrases, instrumentation – even the chanting near the end is sampled from the original album. Everything on Return to Ommadawn was played by Oldfield by himself or sampled. In recent interviews, he expressed reluctance to play it live, believing that he’d need about 15 clones to play all the instruments in the way he envisioned.

Not everything on Return is entirely familiar, however. Notably, the album begins on a less electronic strain – stark contrast to the vocal opening of Ommadawn. In typical early-Oldfield fashion, layers are sequentially added (though without the silly announcements present on Tubular Bells) until the acoustic strumming picks out a jovial countryside tune – this continues until the interruption of the electric guitar, which begins to build tension amidst flighty percussion.

Tension, and the release of, seems to be a common theme in Return. The buildup sections and the acoustic pastoral sections combine to create a musical journey which ends in the choral section.  It’s slightly difficult for me to tell if the vocals have been lifted directly from Ommadawn, or if they’ve been altered electronically – because, rather than simply copy-pasting them in, Oldfield re-contextualises them by changing the instrumentation. The original vocal section is supported by heavy African drumming, wooden blocks, and an acoustic rendition of the main motif over the top. Pan pipes, flute, trumpet, an electric guitar, and various other instruments continue the piece.

The new vocal section still rests on the back of the drumming, which is even heavier than before, but a piano reprises the theme at first, and then this dies away and is replaced by an acoustic guitar playing the new motif. The piece is mainly continued by electric guitar. So, some instrumental variety is lost between the two albums – at least, in that moment.

From what I understand of the lyrics, Ommadawn is an Anglicisation of Irish ‘amadán’ meaning ‘idiot.’ But the words were apparently just chosen for their phonetic sounds over any meaning anyway.

Listening to the album will in some ways be a familiar experience – but there’s enough of a twist on the sound to keep it interesting and new in terms of timbre, texture of the sound, and tone. The old Ommadawn was a mysterious piece, almost otherworldly; in its combination of various instruments there was an element of internationality that transcended the actual origins of the music, and even to some extent the European compositional logic which made it. Return, while occasionally creating an air of solemnity (especially in the first four minutes of Part II) never copies the sheer universality of its predecessor, instead opting for emotional weight. It paints a vision of hills and fields, and in a way the sound kind of contradicts its own packaging – Return reminds me more of Hergest Ridge than the snowy wasteland depicted on the cover. Like David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive, it’s an autumnal album disguised by wintry cover art.

Ommadawn ended with a song named ‘On Horseback’, tagged on to the end of Part 2, featuring a poem about…well, being on horseback – about Oldfield and William Murray, a drummer he worked with, riding around Hergest Ridge. Gradually, the singer’s voice is replaced by child vocalists, and the song ends. Kitschy, but it does grow on you.

Return acts as though it’s going to redo the tune, but just borrows a line or two and buries them underneath completely different, vaguely Irish guitar work. It was honestly kind of jarring to me. The children vocals feature in small part – but it’s not a new performance, Oldfield simply ripped the old sound and pasted them in. The album ends with a reprise of the main motif from Part II – a kind of wistful refrain played again with wild energy. He pastes on a few lines from ‘On Horseback’ over it, and the piece ends powerfully. Powerfully, but, I feel, wrongly – an album like this, surely, should have a more subtle conclusion? More calm, at least? Ommadawn ended with ‘On Horseback’ so it was natural that it should finish with some energy, but here, it feels as though Oldfield is simply using a similar style of ending for the sake of it.

Return to Ommadawn is absolutely worth your time. It’s not the same as the original – depending on your sensibilities it may actually be better. Despite the huge gap between Incantations and Return, Oldfield’s shown not only that he can still work in that style, but that he can do that while referencing an earlier album and still creating something original. It’s quite the feat, and a triumphant return for the artist who (sadly for some) turned to making shorter, more pop-esque songs for money. And the return could easily have been worse – consider Yes’ recent output. None of it is as bad as Tormato, but it’s not as good as Fragile either, while Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn stands among his best stuff.

So go listen to it.

 

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