In times of uncertainty, music like Not Even Happiness, the second album from Seattle singer-songwriter Julie Byrne can be a balm. Dispensing with the wispiness characteristic of contemporary folk music, Byrne commands attention with her deep, supple voice and compositional touch, and rewards the listener with an album that plays like a deeply affecting sermon.
Opener "Follow My Voice" is an almost hymnal affirmation of transcendent dedication to a loved one. The song, as well as Byrne's remarkably heartfelt performance, is shaded with doubt and fear, soothed as she sings "Your eyes are breeding love; sending in the light." Pieces like the opener and "Melting Grid," dappled with the half-light of woodwinds and organ, showcase her bravery in stepping beyond the confines of traditional tone colour and structure.
Byrne's melodies tend to skip like stones on water, or hover like a gull riding a sea breeze. Even the finger picked arpeggios of the sprightly "Sleepwalker" find her inimitable voice navigating with unassailable confidence, and the jaw dropping "Natural Blue" seems to bloom into climax as a crystalline low end rises up to meet the sweeping strings.
The lyrics that Byrne sings across Not Even Happiness tend toward the abstract, but they are suffused with a warmth and wisdom and a tactile quality that is beautifully reflected in the music. An interlude of otherworldly drones leads into a second half that is more conservative compositionally, but just as thoughtful and artful as the more delicate first half. A clear standout is "All the Land Glimmered Beneath," an expression of awe at the natural world that is intruded on in its last moments by the sounds of insects, birds and wind.
Forming a sort of travelogue, "Sea as it Glides" rides the sound of lapping waves, along with glistening guitar and swells of harmony. It's an unusual turn for the record to take, but it feels like a logical piece of musical storytelling as the intimate and confessional first half gives way to landscapes of rough hewn beauty in a way that is touching and self affirming.
Closer "I Live Now as a Singer," is a tour diary like no other, the weariness of the seasoned performer seeping through Byrne's resigned voice and the miasma of keyboards that gathers behind her. It's a downcast ending, but part of Byrne's appeal is the way she can effortlessly combine melancholy and transcendent joy into gorgeous folk music that can't truly be compared with any other artist.
Not Even Happiness is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.