“This album is dedicated to The Moon: By honouring her phases I am restoring balance to my body and spirit; and to the divine feminine. By collectively cultivating her, may we restore balance to our world.” So read the liner notes to the mesmerising second album from DIY psych-folk maiden Johanna Warren, who may be familiar as a former backing singer with Iron & Wine. It’s certainly a lofty ambition, but if Warren and her music can be located anywhere it’s ‘out there’.
From the opening crystalline notes of Black Moss, Warren draws you in with pensively picked acoustic melodies and quavering vocals, which have the beguiling quality of a siren’s call. Building from this intimate core, the songs on nümün grow layers of piano, percussion, woodwind and vocals that provide contrasts and harmonies reminiscent of Nick Drake. There is something immediately inviting about Warren’s vocals, which convey a palpable vulnerability in their delicate directness and though the encroaching instrumentation sometimes threatens to engulf her, it never drowns her out, adding to a sense of tension between intimacy and claustrophobia.
Similarly, nümün oscillates between moments of serenity and tumult, best seen in the central trio of Noise, Apogee and Less Travelled. Noise echoes with unsettling voices and percussion that sounds like clacking bones, which circle in on Warren’s eerie guitar figure before closing in a wash of sibilant voices as she and Blasko layer their clashing vocals in a way that recalls the more haunting moments of David Crosby’s debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Less Travelled on the other hand, is a comforting, lilting ballad offering parental advice with playful flute accompanying Warren and Blasko’s soaring vocal harmonies. Between these two extremes, the aural collage Apogee rests at the centre like the boundary between shifting tectonic plates, calm on a surface of swelling synths and open spaces, yet with an undercurrent of chaos in its rattling percussion. In fact, it’s hard to believe such multi-faceted and layered songs could have been created by only two people (especially considering they were recorded on borrowed equipment in a seashore apartment in Wildwood, New Jersey), and Warren excels at creating an intoxicatingly strange atmosphere, yet retaining a sense of intimacy.
And while Warren’s music has an otherworldly quality, her lyrics are rooted in the brass tacks of a mortal life. Until a near fatal car crash in 2012 , Warren would have described herself as “an extremely nihilistic, staunchly atheistic person”, and her lyrics maintain that sceptical edge, recognising the impermanence of things and how little autonomy we have in the face of the inexorable forces that shape our lives. As she reels between peace and confusion, Warren’s observations veer between firm belief and fearful doubt. Where True Colours and Less Travelled are confident in their assertions “forget the duality of wrong and right” and “you’re the only one who can make those choices”, Found I Lost and ethereal album highlight Figure 8 are awash with unanswered questions. Even This Is Why, on the face of it an uplifting song about grabbing life by the throat with truisms such as “haven’t you heard? We’re all dying, / Living fast is much more fun”, is undermined by the admission “this is why I can’t be alone anymore / I miss the time when I knew what time is for”. Even youthful abandon does not last. Ultimately, life is reduced to the essential questions “Where am I?” and “What am I?” on album closer The Wheel, and the final question Warren poses directly to the listener amidst the confusion: “Will you bend or will you break?”
In the face of such thought-provoking anxieties it is clear that for Warren the act of creativity and spiritual healing are one and the same, and if that’s the case then nümün, an album as bewitching as it is ambitious, is certainly good for what ails you.
Review by: James MacKinnon
True Colors (Directed by Gretchen Heinel)
Photo Credit: Beth Behler