Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
Basin Rock / Ba Da Bing – 2017
Julie Byrne’s second album created something of a frenzy amongst critics when it was released last month. Many saw it as an early contender for the album of the year polls. Unusually, it was loved almost equally by the folk, indie, Americana and pop press. A month later the dust has settled and it is as good a time as any to evaluate the record’s qualities.
Not Even Happiness is a brief thing – only nine tracks long, and one of those is the instrumental Interlude – and on the first couple of listens it might pass you by, the slightness of its form proving somewhat evasive, like a shadow passing through trees. But repeated engagement reveals more than enough subtle, beautiful detail in its half-hour timeframe to suggest that the plaudits are no mere hyperbole.
Byrne sings and plays acoustic guitar. Those are the bare facts. That she works in the folk idiom is also apparently clear. Opening track Follow My Voice begins with a pleasant, slightly fuzzy acoustic strum. And then Byrne begins singing. The first line – the song’s title – is part command, part mesmerist’s trick, and if you are listening attentively enough you will be hauled into the song’s world, a world where that voice is the one guiding light. As guiding lights go, this one is soft, inextinguishable. It flickers now and then to prove its life, and when it does whole passages become radiant.
Follow My Voice takes the folk singer’s penchant for self-mythologising and turns it into a potent mission statement, full of quietly affirmative lyrics. ‘I’ve been called heartbreaker for doing justice to my own’, she sings, a sentiment notable for its barely concealed strength and independence of spirit. The idea is sharpened in Sleepwalker, in which Byrne embraces then rejects her solitude against the backdrop of a huge, unknown world, the notion of the travelling folk singer backed up by a guitar track that resembles early Bob Dylan.
The influence of those early American folkies can be heard throughout the album. Melting Grid begins with a short guitar flourish, again similar to Dylan, before Byrne consciously unpicks the thread after a few seconds, introduces a soft flute, and the song becomes a widescreen paean to the mystic psychogeography of the North American continent. Place-names are listed like barely-grasped dream memories; the whole thing hovers between reality and imagination. The same can be said of Natural Blue, whose bright, piercing string section counterpoints the gentle liquid movement of the guitar. Here Byrne’s themes of personal longing and existential belonging collide in moments of limpid beauty.
Perhaps Byrne’s most important lyrical gift is her ability to combine the personal and universal mythmaking properties prevalent in American folk music and wrap them all up in terse and surprising expressions that often approach epiphanies. The breezy Morning Dove is full of such expressions, as is All The Land Glimmered Within. The patches of silence when both guitar and voice drop out frame and illuminate the most profound and personal of those utterances.
On album closer I Live Now As A Singer, Byrne dispenses with the guitar in favour of a slow, cyclical synth motif, verging on the ambient. The result plays out like a mellower Julia Holter, but the lyrics are typical Byrne: a summation of the album’s vast themes of travel and belonging, delivered with wisdom, wonder and quiet certainty.