Just about every artist on the planet has released a “pandemic album” of sorts by now.
Some are defined by the creative risk-taking artists engaged in as they found themselves with time to experiment creatively; some are marked by all-star line-ups of guest musicians as a-list players, suddenly left with time on their hands, welcomed every work-from-home session gig on offer; and some are marked by lyrics more reflective or philosophical in tone as artists contemplated existential questions raised by a world seemingly changed overnight.
But few artists have managed to capture the emotional impact of the pandemic itself.
Orit Shimoni would be an exception.
Winnipeg is an album that is explicitly about the first year or so of the pandemic. And while it is distinctly Orit’s story, listening to it feels comfortingly familiar, like looking at a photo album belonging to someone who took the same holiday as you at around the same time.
Famously nomadic, Orit had no home to return to when she arrived in Winnipeg for what she thought was another gig.
The album’s opening track captures her anxiety and disdain at finding herself trapped in the city and wondering when and if she’d see a loved one again.
“New York” is a love song addressed to the Big Apple as its health care system collapsed under the weight of COVID – a disaster I confess, I had actually forgotten about until I listened to this smokey soul number, because, alas, there have been so many disasters since.
“Bananas” gently mocks vaccine conspiracy theorists by satirizing their claims, and drives the message home with a performance that recalls those heard on children’s albums.
“Love” describes COVID as “a different kind of war,” where we can’t even trust friends or family any more and proposes that love is the only way to fight.
And “Over,” the album’s closer, sees Orit reflecting on human nature and asking if the darkness we saw during the pandemic is really over.
There are also love songs of sorts like “I Can’t Wait,” that remind us that Orit is stranded without her companion during these first few months of lockdowns and travel restrictions.
And there are songs like “What Does it Matter” and “Witness” that address the emotional toll of the pandemic more fulsomely, and the manner in which it intermingles with the struggles and traumas we were carting around going into it.
Much of Winnipeg has a Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session sort of vibe to it with Orit’s beautifully understated voice treated with a touch of reverb and dressed in minimalist arrangements. She departs from that approach just often enough to keep things interesting, such as on “Numbers,” a dirty blues piece about case-counts, death tolls and so on. Remember when they were the top story every night?
One of the principal roles of the singer-songwriter is to help us process our emotions by expressing in art what we struggle to express in words.
But the pandemic has been so huge, so complicated, so all consuming, that few songwriters have managed to get far enough outside of it to sum it up for us yet..
Winnipeg is the first collection of songs that’s had me thinking to myself, “Yes. That’s it. That’s how it went down, isn’t it?”
It also happens to be a stirring, beautifully-crafted album by any measure.