"It was the first warm afternoon of the year. I walked alongside the Atlantic as the Earth came alive for the sun. There was a palpable sense of emergence to everything. I felt it in myself too, and remember thinking I would trade that feeling for nothing… not even happiness."
This was Julie Byrne’s explanation of her second album’s title, Not Even Happiness, the follow-up to 2014’s mostly overlooked Rooms With Walls and Windows. Much of the Brooklyn singer’s charm is laid bare in these few words: a simple lyricism propelled by an exquisite command of vocabulary and syntax; themes married foremost to the natural world; a propensity to convey the inner mind and outer surroundings with a single brushstroke. But most of all, it captures her engagement to the restless world. “I love everything that flows,” Henry Miller said, “everything that has time in it and becoming… all that is fluid, melting, dissolute and dissolvent.” Byrne’s work shares that spirit: she loves everything that is emergent.
Performing from a young age, she began her musical career at the age of 17 after her father, a wedding singer, developed advanced multiple sclerosis and was no longer able to work. Since then the artist passed from state to state – Seattle, Chicago and New Orleans – and took the experiences of those scenes with her, culminating in a debut album three years ago. That record felt like a sunny daydream, all husky vocals and woozy, finger-picked melodies. Tracks like “Butter Lamb” felt drunken in every sense: artfully clumsy in their delivery, like she’d recorded each song the very moment after waking, afraid that a few minutes longer would beckon the outside world into compromise the whole affair. The world of Rooms With Walls and Windows felt perpetually half-roused.
Perhaps it’s a sentimental comparison, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Not Even Happiness, a record that retains many of those soporific qualities in its delivery, nonetheless represents the artist in a state of wakeful euphoria. “Follow My Voice” opens the album with that familiar finger-picked style, each movement marked by the sound of skin stretching across frets; yet already everything feels cleaner, the production swelled by strings and open chords, Byrne’s voice closer to the mic than perhaps previously allowed. By the time we reach “Sleepwalker,” the album’s lyrical themes have begun to unfold: “I travelled only in service of my dreams. I stood before them all... I was a sleepwalker.” “Natural Blue” also makes its long-awaited appearance here, and marks an organic bridge between the two records. Tales of “driving through southwestern towns that I had been in before” are softened by “sun-split ember and fields that span forever,” a landscape punctuated by the occasional sharp-focus announcement of landmarks on the horizon.
It’s no coincidence that the ambient wash of “Interlude” neatly cleaves the first four tracks of Not Even Happiness from the last four. Though “All the Land Glimmered Beneath” recalls the quiet solitude of the record’s opening number, its reference points have shifted from the prison of the mind to the prism of nature: now she is “sitting in the garden, singing to the wind,” now she stands before the snow, under the moon, above the land, within a Walden she calls her own.
The album spins on its heels for “I Live Now as a Singer,” and there’s a strong chance you won’t be prepared for the sheer, glimmering majesty of the thing. Here, just as it begins to waver and fold in the wind, the record finds its centre of gravity, only synths and strings left to communicate this century's “Song to the Siren.” “And yes I have broke down asking for forgiveness,” she sings, raw honesty seeping out, “when I was nowhere close to forgiving myself. And I have dragged my life across the country, and wondered if travel led me anywhere. But there’s a passion in me which does not long for those things...” After thirty minutes spent gazing out at the blurred rush of the side window, it’s a sobering glance back at the road left behind.
At peace now, the record draws to a close, and you find yourself staring out of your own window, wondering how many times it’s hurried past the sun since you last noticed the garden.
Release: 27th January 2017, Ba Da Bing Records