Dear Reader - Rivonia (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
WHILE a politically leaning album may not sound like a barrel of laughs or a particularly easy listen, you may change your mind when you hear Rivonia, the compelling third album from South African born Cheri MacNeil artist, aka Dear Reader.
Having spent 11 years studying at a small primary school in the north of Johannesburg, not far from what was once an isolated farm called Lilliesleaf, she lived close to a nearby settlement where, on July 11, 1963, a dry-cleaning and flower van parked beside a thatched cottage and disgorged a squad of armed policemen.
They’d received a tip off from a neighbour‘s son about unusual comings and goings, their suspicions further aroused by the fact that these involved both black and white individuals.
It had taken them a while to locate the place: initial reports spoke of a place called Ivon, and it was only after searching the area that they found an old, weather-beaten sign from which three letters were missing. It had once said ‘Rivonia’, the name of the suburb in which they stood.
That day, police arrested 19 members of the African National Congress, the underground organisation run by Nelson Mandela – who had already been imprisoned – which sought to overthrow the ruling apartheid government. It was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history.
But it was only some years later that MacNeil learned that these events had taken place around the corner from the building where she had for so long been educated.
Rather than being outspoken on the subject, however, MacNeil has opted to take a more human outlook to the events, albeit one that poses more questions than it answers about the human condition.
The result is an album that boasts lyrical intelligence to match its bright melodicism. There’s a poignance to tracks such as From Now On, which imagines what it might be like to miss the things that we take for granted, and the piano based Back From The Dead, which finds optimism in the darkest of places. The violin arrangements here, too, are striking.
Throughout, MacNeil employs striking vocals and harmonies to augment the album’s sound, the highlight of which arguably comes from final track Victory, a positive note upon which to end things and which strips back the instrumentation to an a capella chorus. It’s beautifully delivered and rousing in sentiment.
Further evidence of the way MacNeil employs great hamornies is to be found on opener Down Under, Mining, which employs vocals as one of the main ‘instrumental’ backdrops, and similarly on Cruelty On Beauty On (although, on the latter record, these are embellished by equally bright piano arrangements and slick beats).
Already Are, meanwhile, embraces a brooding acoustic sound to relay its particular tale, and a boy-girl vocal that offers a striking contrast in styles (reminiscent of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush in concept).
Put together, Dear Reader’s Rivonia has to rate as a major personal triumph for the artist.
Download picks: Down Under, Mining, From Now On, Already Are, Cruelty On Beauty On, Victory, From Now On