Monday, February 6, 2017

album review: 'not even happiness' by julie byrne

So I've talked in the past about the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' subgenre - hell, it seems like most music critics on YouTube have at least cited it at this point - and I think like most of us who regularly use the term, we're obliged to explain our interpretations of it at some point. For me, my distaste tends to come for a certain languid, lazy, and yet overly polished and sanitized brand of it, that doesn't aim to push into any interesting lyrical or instrumental directions and simply serves to fill a very safe, middlebrow niche, calculated to the point where it undercuts any sense of feigned sincerity. But that's not dismissing acoustic-leaning indie folk, because while there are a considerable share of stuff that will tilt into that style and lane, usually you'll see a bit more flexibility and innovation than in the mainstream, which can definitely add some colour. I might have many, many issues with Mark Kozelek, but he's a distinctive enough auteur that I'd never outright discount him under this label.

Similarly, while there are fewer of them I'd also argue the label can apply to women as well - they aren't immune to bland artistic bankruptcy - but again, it's not to discount the ones that opt to push into interesting directions. Take Julie Byrne: going back through her debut on Bandcamp you could make the argument that the quiet domesticity and small details would make for the sort of material I'd otherwise find tedious - and yet while I'd be lying to say any of her work was exciting, I found myself mostly liking the filmy cassette quality and muted somber tones of that 2014 debut record Rooms With Walls And Windows. There was a distinct homegrown texture to the instrumental tones and her delivery that did have a certain amount of charm to it, and yet while I was never entirely hooked, I did find a fair amount to appreciate. She aimed to follow it up this year with Not Even Happiness... which yes, was promising a cleaner sound, which did raise some concern, but hey, maybe it'd be interesting, right?

Okay, this was interesting - and the weird thing is that on the first four or five listens it didn't seem to be. It was cleaner, the textures were less interesting than her debut, the very low-key and muted presentation put me in the mind of too many singer-songwriters who play for a very similar type of stripped back earthy elegance. But when I started digging into the lyrics... well, I wouldn't say the record got precisely better, but there was a lingering sense that there was a little more than initially meets the eye. I still don't love it by any stretch of the mind, but I definitely hear the appeal.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production... and really, there isn't a huge amount to say. On her debut there was a filmy, slightly ethereal tone to how the textures in her guitar and atmosphere blurred and blended with her voice, and for the most part this record does away with that, aiming for cleaner, squealing guitar pickups, hints of more elegant and opulent backing textures in the far distance, and of course Byrne's vocals closest, with only a hint of reverb to intensify the lonely intimacy. Make no mistake it's a more conventional tone and approach to this sound, and with the slightly quicker tempo in the guitarwork implies there's a hint more momentum to this project - I can definitely see this being more accessible. And yet there's a part of me that's not entirely enamored with it - Byrne's delivery is husky and quiet, which yes, is the natural fit for this sort of production, but hat doesn't exactly lend to hooks that will grab you with any intensity. But of course that's not the point: this is meditative, it's mood music - hell, if you strip out some of the new age touches airiness it very much has the feel of an acoustic Enya project unplugged, especially in the most ghostly vocal touches. As such, if you want it to stand out, you're relying on lyrics or distinctive melodic tones, and while we'll get to the former in a moment, the latter... okay, outside of an interlude that really feels like empty air, there are a few potent moments that I somewhat appreciated. I liked the hints of arranged instrumentation behind 'Follow My Voice', the cloudy pan flutes, soft backing vocals and hints of organ behind 'Melting Grid', the deep swells of the layers on 'Natural Blue', the ghostly coos of 'Sea As It Glides', and the ethereal touches that fill the languid synths of 'I Live Now As A Singer'. On the other hand, though, she also has an odd habit of some surprisingly jerky melodic and tempo transitions, like on 'Sleepwalking' and 'Morning Dove', or the abrupt ending of 'All The Land Glimmered Beneath', which certainly do not help the flow.

Of course, with this sort of minimalism a lot hangs on the writing... and where this record gets simultaneously interesting and frustrating. For as much as - on the surface - these are love songs, Byrne's style of writing doesn't make them easy to follow or trace through any sort of coherent narrative - which, of course is part of the point. When details do show up, they're small and pastoral as the poetry curls around them, to the point where you get the impression she's trying to untangle the songs in mid-song too - which again, is part of the point and even links into the underlying themes as she slowly tries to unpack her emotions and feelings. There's not a coherent narrative because processing love and solitude and the tangled web of contradictions that comes between Julie Byrne pursuing her passion and art on the lonely road and relationships with others in an established place... well, that's not a narrative process. And yet for as much as I can appreciate the parallels in form and function, the parallels between pursuing love and art are shakier. Take 'Follow My Voice', where she expresses concerns that in both love and art she may be misunderstood, and in a desire to correct this she'll overcompensate and not be true to herself, so she opts to share and trust more in that love... and yet I can't help but see the irony because her usage of abstraction makes songs like this difficult to decode and easy to misinterpret. Don't get me wrong, when you do get a handle on the ideas of these songs they go into beautiful territory - the loneliness that comes in art or love that is not understood or reciprocated on 'Melting Grid', the poigancy of the quiet moments on 'Natural Blue', and especially the closer where she confronts that despite continuously leaving for new pastures, she hasn't yet fully processed what's going on within that compels her to keep leaving... although it is telling on the final lines that she seems to have found someone who will despite it all remain honest, and whether it be her love or her audience... well, in a neat way, for both it can apply. 

And yet all the while I can't help but get the impression that both in theme and execution the writing is overthought, or at the very least reflects Byrne's difficult getting to a deeper point. I get trying to capture those complicated solitary moments and the difficulties that come with opening up, in revealing more of yourself that places understanding in the hands of another - but it's not like Byrne is making it easy on herself or the audience, which seems to manufacture a certain distance that might feel more comfortable, but doesn't resolve anything. Byrne has confirmed in interviews something of a cyclical nature of the themes - trying to give of oneself and open up and trust, and by the end of the record, she's still doing much of the same, with the biggest shift coming in a subtle acknowledgement of trust from the other side. And yes, that's also a major thematic component - the little details and choices and trust that can mean the world - but it's progress by inches, feeling more like she summons so much courage to pass an obstacle that should be the baseline in any expression of love or confessional art, and the impact feels extremely muted. And it's not like I'm not familiar with this sort of naturalistic writing or progression either - the same sort of nomadic musings coloured much of Bill Callahan's quietly brilliant 2013 album Dream River, and there were similar structural conceits and pastoral imagery on Joanna Newsom's magnificent album Divers, but in both cases through either understated directness or intricately gorgeous construction, they ended up carrying so much more weight for me.

As such... look, I get why Not Even Happiness has an audience, but I think I might admire parts of this record more than I like it. I gave this album over a dozen listens for it to really resonate, and while there are indeed moments, the compositions aren't sticking and the ideas don't resonate as deeply as I'd like. It's good, for sure, getting a strong 6/10 from me, but given my own preferences for atmospheric or 'mood music'... eh, good, but I appreciate it more than I outright like it, and that's me being very open and honest.

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