Sharron Kraus – Joy’s Reflection is Sorrow
21 June 2018 – Sunstone (Vinyl) / Nightshade (CD)
Music that attempts to deal with the big questions – I mean the really big ones, the ones about life and death, the pursuit of happiness and the prevalence of despair – is thin on the ground these days. Emotional honesty is everywhere (social media can take some of the credit for that), but for the most part, it is a super-personal kind of emotional honesty, or else it hides behind the multiple onion-skins of irony and metafictive play (see Father John Misty). So it’s refreshing when an album explores weighty themes with sincerity and gravitas, and even more so when the artist in question combines the personal with the abstract without diluting either.
This is exactly what Joy’s Reflection Is Sorrow, the new album by Sharron Kraus, does so well. Kraus doesn’t claim to know the answers, but she does realise that the best way to approach the questions is through deep personal reflection. Her music sits somewhere alongside that nebulous genre often called acid folk (she’s based in England but has previously been aligned with various so-called ‘new weird America’ acts, including Fursaxa and Espers), and this style allows the cosmic and the quotidian to coexist.
Joy’s Reflection Is Sorrow begins in rapture. My Danger sees her voice rise on a warm air current of synth; the simple lyrics involve a kind of celestial, spiritual or symbolic meeting with a bird of prey, a thing of beauty, power and fear. There is a hint of death in the song’s closing lines, and death stalks the whole album: the codependence of life in death is just one of the many dualities that emerge as themes as the album progresses.
Figs And Flowers (Oh, Sweet Dawn) is a celebration of the simple joy of waking, suffused with sunny flutters of flute. The Man Who Says Goodbye, on the other hand, is charged with the pain of bereavement. The record is dedicated to Kraus’s father, who died in 2016, and this song is the first clear examination of the grieving process, and the possibility of happiness after that grief has passed. Kraus’s wonderfully clear singing is the perfect vehicle for this kind of song. In the past, she has not been afraid to pile on the musical effects, often taking a maximal, fuzzed-out psych-folk approach, but this new material calls for – and gets – a more intimate delivery.
The title track is another clear-eyed song about the sadness of losing a loved one. The baroque swirl of the instrumentation situates the song in a kind of liminal state between seasons, and between life and afterlife. Sorrow’s Arrow exists in a similar dream-state, where Kraus is trapped between two worlds, which may be the past and the present, death and life, sorrow and joy. The song builds into a kind of slow clatter, with eerily bubbling synths, a circular acoustic guitar motif and a short, disconcerting patch of jazzy, jumpy, modernistic drumming courtesy of Guy Whittaker.
Secrets continues at a similarly hypnotic pace, with Oliver Parfitt’s synths once more carrying the song along as slow, deceptive and beautiful as a lava flow. When Darkness Falls is perhaps the emotional low point, a contemplation of death on a larger, more general scale. But even here the album’s duality shows itself: the final lines invoking a weak light and a soft voice to ward off darkness. Death And I, conversely, is full of defiance and hope. ‘Once our tears have all been shed/We will laugh and love again’ Kraus sings, before asserting that, if there is to be a winner in the ultimate dust-up, it will be love.
There are many factors that make Joy’s Reflection Is Sorrow a wonderful album. The musicianship is great (the woodwind and violin of Jenny Bliss Bennett is a particular treat), Kraus’s voice has found a new confidence and the rolled-back arrangements and production allow the songs room to breathe and speak. But perhaps the most important thing, in a world in which instant gratification and long-term despair are increasingly held up as the only options, is the sense of a lasting optimism that goes beyond the span of a human life, that perhaps even defines the nature of human life. Kraus may not be able to answer those big questions – maybe they are unanswerable – but she has found the best possible way to ask them.
Released 21 June 2018 on Vinyl via Sunstone Records and on CD via Nightshade
CD and Digital via Bandcamp: https://sharronkraus.bandcamp.com/album/joys-reflection-is-sorrow