Not Even Happiness by Julie Byrne – Out now via Basin Rock
Review by Ian Preece
I’m always picking up old films cheap on DVD in places like Fopp. Get them home, hail them all-time classics that not only broke cinematic ground but also heavily influenced my world view in my twenties, then sink deeper into my seat as the gymkhana scene in The Swimmer unfolds (a lysergically filmed interlude featuring Burt Lancaster in blue trunks galloping around a hazily shot field, vaulting over pony jumps with bikini-clad Janet Landgard), or Denis Lavant breaks out into his haltingly tortured ‘Modern Love’ dance sequence midway through Leo Carax’s very eighties Mauvais Sang (The Night is Young). Records do age too, of course – that nasty 1983 drum sound; a bit of overly brassy production – but somehow music seems less crushingly susceptible to this than film.
Julie Byrne has made a dreamy second album that sounds like it could have been recorded any time from the late sixties up to now. There’s a faint hippyish Joni Mitchell vibe to a track like ‘Natural Blue’; a whiff of Susan Christie’s Paint a Lady in some of the string arrangements; and a soft, not-quite-whispered but still beautifully expressive voice that brings to mind Sibylle Baier from the seventies, or Heather Woods Broderick from more recent times. That’s not to say that Byrne sounds particularly like any of these artists – she’s very much got her own, instantly identifiable sound: hushed vocals, more prominent than on her first LP Rooms with Walls and Windows, but still somewhat buried back in the mix, and brushed drums and strings, which can initially give the impression of an overly uniform sound. But you only need to listen to the record a couple of times for the individual elements to begin to separate; for the jewels to glow beneath the iridescent surface. Great though 2014’s Rooms with Walls and Windows was (made up of a couple of early cassette releases), there’s a richer sound, a more expansive flow to Not Even Happiness. There are songs of passing clouds and displacement (to me this city’s hell/ I know you call it home), of being a wanderer, crossing the country carrying no key; of growing accustomed to solitude, never quite settling down (I’ve been called “heartbreaker” for doing justice to my own), then facing up to doing just that when affairs of the heart appear resolved. That’s just the opening couple of tracks, ‘Follow this Voice’ and ‘Sleepwalker’. The guitar ripples in a stately manner, there’s a relaxed, folky, sunny morning vibe. Then comes the magnificent ‘Melting Grid’, a song born from Byrne quitting a soul-sucking dead-end job as a waitress in Chicago and, senses re-awakened, touring the Pacific north-west for the first time. Like the author’s itinerant life it travels on through Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado and Wyoming; there are fragments of clouds in the sky, glimpses of kneeling on grass, laying down before evergreens, roses that don’t need tending, mysteries of love remaining ‘irresolvable’. The recording here is a cleaned up version of the pink-vinyl 7” released on Static Caravan a couple of years back, Michelle Finkelstein’s reedy flute arrangement as gorgeous as ever – there’s a winsomeness as well as a hazy/lazy unfurling to this song that’ll see it cued up after Kath Bloom’s ‘Come Here’ on many a celestial jukebox. ‘Natural Blue’ follows, inspired by ‘the morning sky in Colorado after staying up through the night at a house party in the mountains of Boulder’, stars still twinkling over the Rocky Mountains to one side, and the flatlands of the Kansas plains to the other.
Like with the woozy ‘Piano Music’ that divides the sides of Rooms with Walls, the beautiful, gently billowing drift of the instrumental ‘Interlude’ splits the songs here – a treated ‘recording of the passage of freight trains on the outskirts of Buffalo, New York’, which wouldn’t be out of place on one of Brian Eno’s ambient series of LPs. It should definitely have been more than interlude.
When not out on the road, in the vast open prairies and mountain parks, Byrne moonlights as a park warden in New York, and so it’s no surprise that the beauty of the natural world is infused throughout the LP – walking in the woods, lying in verdant fields, life is short as a breath half-taken (Morning Dove); the land glimmering beneath moonlight (‘All that Glimmered’); days slipping away lying by the shore, waves breaking in a mix of ambient guitar and gentle surf (‘Sea as it Glides’) – as well as the sometimes forlorn search for meaning – an anchor, God within (‘All that Glimmered’) and the ever-present vagaries of love. But there’s an unerring glory to the closing ‘I Live Now as a Singer’ ‒ Byrne’s lone voice over a ghostly synth, singing of dragging a life over the country, before that quietly fades too. Nine songs, 33 minutes, and Not Even Happiness has gone, drifted off on a mountain breeze, slipped down the interstate, like its author, to another town.
I’m not for a moment suggesting Julie Byrne is swimming home through the back garden pools, rivers and streams of America, searching in vain for happiness and meaning. But in this life it can be hard not to wake from a dream feeling like Burt Lancaster, bewildered and trapped by speeding traffic on the highway in just your swimming trunks, eventually reaching home to find it derelict. Better to stay on the move, in tune with the natural world coming alive in the morning sun, even if, as Julie Byrne writes of the title of the LP, that means you ‘would trade that feeling for nothing . . . not even happiness’ . As Juliette Binoche says to Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang: ‘Quick…choose a record…before the depression takes over.’ In these gloomy days of January, Not Even Happiness – a beautiful, airy, spacious, gracious and understated record – will more than suffice.
(Thanks to Clive Shaw for being ahead of the game.)
Ian Preece on Caught by the River / on Seeks Music