Basin Rock & Ba Da Bing Records
words by maria sledmere
illustration by robyn mclennan
There are moments in adulthood where you find yourself in tune with the hurting spirit of your inward child, a purer sphere of perfect feeling. In a letter to his son, Ted Hughes refers to this inner child as a ‘little creature, behind the armour, peering through the slits’, an ‘inmost emotional self’, ‘the carrier of all the living qualities’.
The child is allowed to surface through maturity’s protective plating only in moments of distress, and it’s this sudden vulnerability that lets us to grow as individuals, exposing our chastest selves to a cruel and beautiful, turning world. Certain music, maybe, can tease out our secret weaknesses, open holes in the sky to find easier breathing, to let in the light for our psyche. Music that feels like the first breath of cold on a fresh winter morning, tart and sweet as a Braeburn apple. Music that offers a rambler’s zeal for discovery. Music that restores the child within us, makes worlds of unremembered innocence brush against our own, in all complicated grace of new images and stories.
There is something distinct about Julie Byrne that performs this raw magic. No record of 2017 quite did for me what Not Even Happiness can do, with its healing tones, its voice of deep and boldest blue. From the first snowy brush of acoustic frets on opener, ‘Follow My Voice’, to the embracing synths of its closing track, ‘I Live Now as a Singer’, Not Even Happiness takes you on its trail of dazzling vitality, leading listeners further within and yet ever across a complex universe. It’s the silver dripping through a forest canopy, a corona of cornflowers surrounding the moon. It’s laying down lines of metamorphic gorgeousness, lapis lazuli words that render the haunting of awestruck moments. With minimal accompaniment, Byrne’s voice thaws the ice that encases the heart; at once feather-light and thickly mercurial, with the whimsy of Vashti Bunyan and Leonard Cohen’s melancholy, cryptic spirit.
Byrne’s debut LP, 2014’s Rooms with Walls and Windows, exacted an enticing, tranquil quotidian, with soft-woven pastorals in old-fashioned mode. Folk music that dwells in a language for love as ephemeral permanence: “a prism for light passing through”, a lovely oxymoronic need to fill time and space immortally with an other, proximate to the knowledge of such impossibility: “I would not want to be faster or greener than now”. The record collects, reflectively, the simple, incantatory details that name desire—“black coffee, brown sugar and cream”—the details so fleeting yet still lingering, persistent in memory. Human relations shift like the tide, but Julie Byrne has a knack for preserving the rhythm of each swell and parting. Her voice looks back but reaches out also towards future shores.
Not Even Happiness extends this reflective maturity, but lifts us from domestic comforts to a more restless, nomadic sense of being. Love in ‘Sleepwalker’ is longing for someone even in the fleeting moment when they leave the room. Love in ‘Follow My Voice’ is passing clouds, breathing eyes. Love in ‘Natural Blue’ is this amazing resonance of colour, a bright splash of desire; Byrne here returns to childish wonder, its rich cerulean beauty swathed over soaring strings. Listening to ‘Natural Blue’, it’s as though you are floating above towns and fields glimpsed from memory, easing yourself into a flourishing dream. The song’s subtle synaesthesia evokes blue as a chordal longing, recalling the vertigo of a love whose sincerity is nevertheless draped in sorrow. For how can such feeling survive in a world so fleeting?
With a new age attentiveness to spirit, a folk singer’s commitment to careful lyric, Byrne makes quiet tapestries of life. Scenic weavings that ripple in the wind, brush against our breath; that protect somehow the splendour within. Not Even Happiness: the very title preserves its quiet joy by a certain refusal, a gap where we might gauge what is truly significant in our lives. In Byrne’s rootlessness, it’s a strength of will and comfort in solitude that persists as its own wisdom. Something more than happiness, something that lasts and gives out its promise like smoke from a candle extinguished.
The everyday tumult of social media and constant access to everything might promise pleasure, but the pleasures Byrne seeks are more solid, even as they often materialise as surprising instants. For Byrne’s lapidary imagism, her sleepless rivers and verdant fields, are swept up in movement, an assured philosophy of transience: “And life is short as a breath half-taken”. In lieu of romanticised eternity, she presents departures, devotion, melting days; little details we absorb and store for the longing to come. There’s a sense of sharing memory, of passing on friendship and love as both past and future thought.
Although from Buffalo, New York, Julie Byrne is a singer of many places, a poet of “the mystic west” as much as she is a dweller of cities, of the wilds and open roads. Not Even Happiness is an album of the land, the air and the sea; of darkness and light, the ancient and fleeting. Such diversity is a communion between the outside and in—“I’ve been seeking god within”—and with each delicate sample of birdsong and breaking waves, each subtle lift of orchestration and tremble of guitar, Byrne’s lyric self-awareness permits dialogue between self and nature, a recognition of that elemental intimacy.
On ‘Sea as it Glides’, we’re brought buoyed up on strings and soothing harmonies, before landing in the fadeout dreamland of ‘I Live Now as a Singer’. With hymnal vocal elasticity, cocooned in almost Lynchian synths, Byrne calls up Liz Fraser on ‘Song to the Siren’, calls up the heartbreaking languor of Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Tarifa’: lingering on the brink of state lines and borders, in all romantic darkness and warning signals—“Blue palms glide in the light of a red moon”—between now and forever, conjuring a future sublime that splits in its plurality, its otherness, its mystery.
The child within us isn’t trapped in amber. She is able to eke through, snag pieces of light, glimpse the world even while hiding recalcitrant from reality. In all the weight of mature emotion, Julie Byrne attunes us to our hidden needs; restores the wonder of seeing things in their fragile, raw and hypnotic state.
Her voice is warm and full, yet often hollow too: unafraid of exposing vulnerability, sweeping gossamer finger-plucked guitar across landscapes of love and memory. In the cold dark nights of winter, I walk the long way home, listening to her healing songs as my boots crackle ice and glass, recalling a time in the year when Glasgow too might be dear green, meeting a sky of endless blue.
By carving a record of spacious joy, atmosphere and subjective focus, Julie Byrne recovers that much-needed nourishing, welcomes us in with oracular lyric. Despite its mysticism, its long-cast shadows, there’s a sedimentary precision to the world of Not Even Happiness: an accumulation of tiny material pleasures like chips of silt and jewel; yet also a sense of being always on the verge of evaporation, submitting oneself to the bliss of abyss. For isn’t that what love is, after all: the commitment to something vastly beyond, perhaps impossible, beautiful in its cliff-like sheerness of feeling and vision? Occasionally, a record comes along that realigns us with the child, with that inward capacity for infinite, formless, roving emotion; breaking again on shatterable reality, spreading outwards like milky vanishings of winter light. Ted Hughes again: ‘The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.’