Not Even Happiness
Reviewed by: Ziggy Merritt
Transience is defined by fleeting moments that inevitably fade into the background. Since debuting in 2014, New York based songwriter, Julie Byrne has lived a transient life, one that’s taken her from Buffalo to Boulder and back. Through years of wandering, those fleeting moments have coalesced into the inevitable follow-up of Not Even Happiness. Basking in a wave of perfected calmness, Bryne’s latest captures vivid snapshots of wistful happiness and melancholy.
Settling somewhere between the folk poetics of fellow singer-songwriter Laura Marling and the pensive ambient soundscapes of This Mortal Coil, Not Even Happiness is very much the stuff of dreams.Yet instead of following the expected path into the fuzziness of dream pop, the fullness of Byrne’s rich and resonant voice and expressive fingerpicking are enough to carry you there with minimal atmospherics as accompaniment.
Echoey tones and subtly layered vocal tracks help to explore the depth and weight of her lyricism, which itself expresses themes of pain, delight and pensive contemplation. Of the album’s nine tracks, “Sleepwalker” stands out as the most brightly acoustic, opening with Byrne’s precise and tuneful fingerpicking. Unfolding within that warmth is something of a love story as she finds romance with someone able to break her out of an almost comfortable cycle of solitude. Yet unbroken by this is the willful pursuit of more intangible desires: They often spoke as though I had been set free/I travel only in service of my dreams/I stood before them all/I was a sleepwalker.
On the opposite end of the album’s spectrum is the closer of “I Live Now As A Singer”, one of the few not to feature any acoustics. Here Byrne’s voice is held aloft by warm, pulsating electronics becoming something wholly ethereal in the process.
But somewhere in the middle of these two tonally separate textures comes the album’s centerpiece, “Natural Blue.” Opening softly and wordlessly, Byrne’s vocals gently rise to a crescendo. Following on this upbeat mark is the muted jangling of electric guitar accompanied further by wispy intertwining vocals that eventually swell with a satisfying orchestral conclusion. Through all this, “Natural Blue” evokes a stirring sense of love and wanderlust, painting a word picture of not just a transient life but a life touched by pure and painful desires. Not Even Happiness thus presents itself as one of those few albums impactful enough to make you stop what you’re doing and just listen.