If I Was is an album about coming undone and all the possibilities that pass before your eyes while you’re unraveling. It’s the second full-length album from the Staves, a trio of English sisters whose voices caught the ear of Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver founder not only produced their album but also worked with them extensively at his Wisconsin studio compound. Today we’re premiering a stream of the entire album, and in my eyes, this entire record is essential listening.
Listen to album opener “Blood I Bled” and Vernon’s passion for their music will soon become your own. It’s a violent whirlwind of harmonies that becomes a war cry; a relationship turned battlefield and decimated by emotional bloodshed. The Staveley-Taylor sisters possess the kind of voices that make able-bodied writers lose control of their capacity to avoid terms like ethereal, angelic, and otherworldly. They are simply astonishing in tone, harmony, precision, their ability to weave in and around one another like birds dipping and flitting through the sky. Despite that track’s ferocious bent, the reaches of its climactic, cinematic sweep are euphoric even juxtaposed with the final images of dead roots and pools of blood — I’ve experienced some of my greatest moments of pure joy this year alone when it hits the final minute mark.
If I Was is a tragic epic of Greek or Roman proportions, unfolding in simple, elegiac language. These are the kinds of songs you stand on a cliff and sing into the wind and sea; they need elements themselves to contain or measure the depth of anguish. “Steady” imagines love as a snare to be caught in, the heart as a rabbit beating scared, ready to run as the drums pound uncertainty. One of my friends dubbed “Don’t You Call Me Anymore” a folk Aretha Franklin record, and that’s the only way I can think of it now; a tell-off that assumes the sweetest tone to deliver the harshest message. On “Make It Holy” hushed, quiet tones unfold like a siren’s lullabye, a little too focused on power to be fully trustworthy. “Damn It All” reaches the impossible conclusion that even the strongest love can be pocked with telltale signs of failure. “Even though I love you I want you to go,” the sisters sing, and if you’ve been there, the snow-flurry of darkly strummed, dissonant guitar, brass and tormented, wordless harmonies that follow will evoke your own searing memories.
But the track-spanning suite of “No Me No You No More”/”Let Me Down” is the heart of the album. The Staveley-Taylor sisters sing of a wound that bleeds and sighs without ceasing in three-part harmony: “How can you tell me that don’t love me like you did before?” Cloaked in vulnerability, this rhetorical question builds off the a cappella buzz of one steady note before swelling into the desperately broken plea “Let me be myself again.” That’s what the heart of the title “No Me No You No More” beats toward: a self that can’t come back, an identity become past tense. And the second half, “Let Me Down” is self-indictment and regret tied up in a heart that still belongs to someone else. Relationships change us in ways we don’t and can’t anticipate until we come to the end of them and find ourselves irrevocably altered.
This is the thesis statement of If I Was; it’s an album of wilderness songs, not fit for polite company and the logic of a steadily healing heart. It’s emotional dishevelment constructed in pristine harmony, a double take on what passes for strength. The sisters turn their vulnerability into a source of power, living through their grief without shame that they can feel this deeply, hurt this much. Then, just at the end of the album, they twist the narrative. It ends with “Sadness Don’t Own Me” a head-held-high assertion that finally stops toying with fantasies of the past and squares off with the future: “Sadness don’t own me for long.” It’s a remarkable moment of hope in contrast with the rest of the record. A reminder that no matter how broken things get, you can always write your own ending. Listen below.
If I Was is out 3/31 via Nonesuch.