Fun fact: if you travel to Central Park when she’s not on tour, you just might find Julie Byrne working as a park ranger… that is, if she’s still in New York City by that point. The self-described nomad with the voice of liquid silver has been chronicling her travels over the U.S on Not Even Happiness, speaking plainly of love and loss in a reflective confessional rife with bucolic allusions. The album is at once sweeping and intimate, a good listen for those cross-country road trips or in the comfort of your own bed.
Byrne is not discriminatory in her choice of folk muses, channeling Joni Mitchell on “Follow My Voice,” Ben Howard on “Morning Doves,” and even Enya on “I Live Now As A Singer.” She draws inspiration from her peers both past and present, combining their strengths so effortlessly that she creates her own unique sound. Not Even Happiness is plays out in a trance-like state, almost suspending the listener in a dream as Byrne draws them in with quiet, naked introspection.
Byrne is careful not to fall into the folk trap of redundancy; she incorporates confident fingerpicking and classic folk influences with some more avant-garde electric keyboard work, exploring with reverb and echo effects without letting them swallow her narrative. Not Even Happiness follows an interesting narrative, as if Byrne is drifting out to sea, off to her next adventure.
“Follow My Voice” draws you in with strong fingerpicking, accompanied only by a sly keyboard reverb that emphasizes the beginning of quiet reflection. Byrne’s voice is unadorned and at the forefront of the mix, softly whisper-singing confessions into your ear. “Sleepwalker” provides a faster pace, incorporating layered fingerpicking to create a flowing river effect. Again, Byrne’s vocals are the centerpiece; she is not hiding behind her instrumentals, choosing instead to use them as a simple but detailed backdrop for her well-articulated lyrics.
On “Natural Blue,” a calm, repetitive cadence and melody evoke a lullaby. Faint vocals are faded and distorted by echo, and gentle harmonies add subtle layers to round out the track. Byrne includes wave sounds on “Sea As It Glides,” binding nature with nurture for the entire duration. The track reverberates and sways as it continues, and the accompanying instrumentals are constantly in motion. When Byrne sings “you are the sea/as it glides,” you are very likely to believe her.
Byrne introduces the album in a very grounded way, and by the time the last notes fade from “I Live Now As A Singer,” she has disappeared into the instrumentals, leaving us with only an echo. The production on Not Even Happiness is impeccably done, and the sound fills the space of wherever you are; Byrne’s voice slips through the speakers to make a nest between your ears, curling up for a long winter’s nap. I know one thing for sure: I can now face the harsh Montreal winters armed with Byrne’s gentle warmth.
Album released: January 27, 2017
–review by Juliana Van Amsterdam