There are certain life experiences that might help lead a person toward writing an uncommonly good winter album. I’d argue that one of those experiences is a youth spent in the frozen wastelands of Western New York. The singer-songwriter Julie Byrne speaks of herself as a nomad or a transient, and she’s lived in a half-dozen cities before settling, for now, in New York City, where she works as a park ranger in Central Park when she isn’t touring. But Byrne grew up in Buffalo, one of the bleakest and most inhospitable cities in these United States. Throughout all of upstate New York, the winters are so stark and unrelenting, and the cities are so far apart, that people unfortunate enough to call those places home need to find comfort wherever they can. They need to get used to the idea of cabin fever, to make friends with it. They need to be comfortable with the idea of spending months inside, under blankets, forever building up nerve for the next time they’ll have to step outside. And maybe that’s why Not Even Happiness, Byrne’s sophomore album, works the way it does.
Not Even Happiness is a top-shelf winter album. Great winter albums are long on atmosphere. They are restorative records, records made for contemplation. If you’re attempting to shovel your car out of a snowdrift while listening to music on headphones, a great winter album has to find some way to turn all that white shit into something noble and beautiful. Great winter albums don’t have to come out in winter, but it helps when they do. And Not Even Happiness is showing up right on time.
The most immediately remarkable thing about Byrne is her voice. It’s a soft, controlled, conversational alto. When she sings, it feels like she’s in the room with you, whispering. She never pushes her voice out of its ruminative, insular mood. And even though it’s an impressive instrument, she never feels like she’s showing off, not even when she’s easing into an uncanny falsetto. On Byrne’s first album, 2014’s Rooms Within Walls And Windows, she was using that voice to make hazy, acoustic folk music, at least up until the ambient instrumental that ended the album. And she was good at hazy, acoustic folk music. But on Not Even Happiness, she finds new directions for her music, and she does it without ever breaking the mood. She’s still closer to folk than to anything else, but on the new album, she’ll use impressionistic strings or glassy keyboard hums. Much of the time, the album sounds like film-score music, except with singing. It’s music that never reaches out and grabs your attention, but it has a way of making the objects around you, or the light coming in through your window, appear just bafflingly pretty.
As a writer, Byrne is just as bucolic. She sings about matters of the heart, and she also sings rapturously about nature, two things that sometimes blur into one another. At times, her words can look a little silly on paper: “I consciously died, I seen dew on a rose / I seen a double rainbow, I got a complicated soul.” But she sings it with such calm confidence that the silliness can just melt away. And when she hits on a powerful image, as when she’s on tour in the Southwest and she sees “sun split ember, fields that span both ways forever,” her casual delivery makes it cut a little bit deeper. Every once in a while, she comes along with something that feels, in its own quiet way, like a mission statement: “I’ve been sitting in the garden / Singing to the wind / Searching for an anchor / I’ve been seeking God within.”
If you’re constantly moving from one town to another, especially if you’re doing it by yourself, you get used to long stretches living in your own head — those long drives between places, those hours attempting to reacclimate yourself to a whole new place. If you’re a musician on tour, I imagine, the same thing happens. And the best things about Not Even Happiness is the way it sinks right into that deep and oddly comforting solitude, both lyrically and musically. Winter can be an isolating time. Julie Byrne has found ways to make that isolation sound inviting.
Not Even Happiness is out 1/27 on Ba Da Bing. (Because of a Bandcamp release date error, I thought it was out 1/13 when I wrote this.)
Other notable albums out this week:
• The xx’s tingly, expansive, less-insular-than-usual I See You.
• The Flaming Lips’ giddy, psychedelic Oczy Mlody.
• Flo Morrissey and Matthew E. White’s collaborative covers album Gentlewoman, Ruby Man.
• Code Orange’s heavy, brooding hardcore attack Forever.
• Sohn’s contemplative, atmospheric Rennen.
• Half Japanese’s rickety lo-fi buzzer Hear The Lions Roar.
• Pinegrove guitarist Sam Skinner’s solo LP Danny Through Junior.
• Sing-rapper PnB Rock’s unfortunately titled debut Goin Thru The Motions.
• El Mansouris’ layered, abrasive self-titled debut.
• Chavez’s reunion EP Cockfighters.
• Mr. Tophat & Robyn’s collaborative EP Trust Me.
• Yucky Duster’s Duster’s Lament EP.