Although I wish she’d chosen a more varied set of songs for this album, Niamh Parsons’s voice is still a joy to hear, warm and welcoming, rich, full, and pure. Raised in Dublin, Parsons is equally at home with Irish traditional songs and recent compositions; on this album, she even covers a song written by Mark Knopfler (“Done With Bonaparte”). The accompaniment, mainly guitar from fellow Dubliner Graham Dunne and guitar and mandolin from Chicagoan Dennis Cahill (with fine accordion from Josephine Marsh on a couple tracks, and harmonica from Mick Kinsella on a couple others), is appropriately understated, letting Parsons’s lovely voice take center stage, although two instrumental tracks give Dunne and fellow guitarist Dennis Cahill a chance to strut their stuff. Backing vocals from Tony Gibbons, Terry Coyne, and her sister, Anne Parsons-Dunne, fill out the lineup.
Much as I appreciate Parsons’s voice, I have to say that overall this album falls a bit short of her last effort, the very enjoyable In My Prime from 2000. Mostly, I think, it’s because the tone of Heart’s Desire is relentlessly melancholy, with sad song after slow, sad song. Sometimes the result is achingly beautiful, such as Parsons’s version of Andy Irvine’s song “West Coast of Clare”; on this one Parsons’s lovely, evocative singing paints a moving picture of a windswept, empty shore being walked by the lonely narrator. Or “New Holland Grove” by Sean Mone, in which Parsons’s voice rises and falls like the swells on the ocean bearing the young narrator far away from the home in Ireland that he loves so well. But many of the other songs lose their force from sheer repetition of the same dark emotions time after time.
When Parsons lets herself have a little fun, as on her jaunty version of “A Kiss in the Morning Early,” a classic traditional song in which a clever girl tricks her father into letting her love the man she wants, or “Tide Full In,” with its haunting accordion and Parsons’s voice running the gamut of emotions from wistful loss to joyful anticipation, the whole world seems to light up with her.