album: Not Even Happiness - Julie Byrne

words: Jordan Gorsuch

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She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker
- Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

I’m not fond of the person I am when I am traveling. 

I like the results of traveling, I always cherish the memories – but when I’m in the moment, I feel a sense of unease. I don’t feel like myself. I feel different. I wonder if it’s because I feel a lack of anchor when I’m traveling - a lack of home. 

I can’t help myself when I feel a little jealous of free-spirits, people resembling plastic bags in the wind – ending up wherever the breeze settles them down. Julie Byrne is one of those people. A self-described nomad, Byrne has traveled all over the country and doesn’t plan on settling down anytime soon. Not Even Happiness is a travel album, a deeply-felt collection of songs that play out like vignettes, or small threads in a larger tapestry of life. These flashes of rural country sides and breathtaking vistas are varied but the eyes that take them in are the same, the hand that pens their effect is only but one, and the voice that shapes their influence is smoky and haunting; there’s only one Byrne. 

“Sleepwalker” finds Byrne quickly fingerpicking beautiful, serene chords with a hint of melancholy pervading the corners. Her father’s guitar (now passed onto her) joins her on a hypnotic duet of unfurling roads and wide-open expanses of wilderness. Her fingertips buzz as she reveals: “I crossed the country and I carried no key / Couldn’t I look up at the stars from anywhere / And sometimes I did, I felt ancient / But still I sought peace and it never came to me.” We’re not going to get any answers from Byrne, she’s in this with the rest of us. Always searching, always striving. 

“Colorado, Wyoming, Helena into the Evergreen…” Byrne sings on “Melting Grid,” “…Preserve my memory of the mystic west / As I lay no claim to the devotion I felt." Her fingerpicking gives way to soft strums and bright flutes that shine through the haze of reverb surrounding her weary voice.

Byrne masterfully blends folk with new age in simple, haunting compositions that shine brighter thanks to the understated subtly of the mix. Soft orchestral moments sweep in and out of the arrangements, samples of ocean waves enhance warm synths in the background, and keys emanate behind her misty contralto singing-range. Naturalistic imagery floods the stunning “Morning Dove,” Byrne’s guitar thumps with a memorable, stagnated guitar line. The bird enhances her reality with its soft tenor: “From your lips which splashed my dull house with music.” The bird’s music informs her perception of nature, as Byrne’s music impacts our own outlook. 

I might not feel like myself when I’m on the road, but Byrne helps me feel like I’m inching closer to accepting that my true home is wherever I wish it to be. The key can be found somewhere along the roads within.