“Eyelids,” the opening track from Katy Kirby’s Cool Dry Place, isn’t much on the surface: a barely-there guitar, tuned to a wistful pitch; a few well-timed piano keys; Kirby’s voice clear as a bell. Its sparseness was a struggle. In a recent interview, Kirby talked about how she wanted to add more to the track in order to make it pop as the first song on her debut album but had to restrain that urge. “It took me a while to realize that you can just stop working on a song,” she said. That doesn’t make it unfinished — it just makes it done.
A willingness to let things go is a guiding principle on Kirby’s first album. She achieves perfection through subtraction; she has learned how to make music that sounds uncomplicated and just works. That’s no small feat. Simplicity can be hard. Cool Dry Place doesn’t call attention to itself, and by not doing so it feels all the more special. This is unhurried and exceedingly clever songwriting. The songs are sweeping in scope but they never feel overbearing; they shimmer with whimsy and hooks, but Kirby’s self-discipline is evident throughout. She starts off minimal and lets the songs escalate from there, building transcendent moments by having them begin in one place and end up somewhere totally different.
Kirby — who was based in Nashville until the pandemic forced her to move back to her small Texas hometown — operates in the well-worn tradition of rambling folk songs. Cool Dry Place is assured enough that it doesn’t need much fuss. There are echoes of Feist, Big Thief, and Hop Along throughout; fans of Florist, Hand Habits, and Lomelda will find a lot to like here. And Cool Dry Place sounds as confident as any of them — music that is subtle and full of space and puts an emphasis on what Kirby is trying to say.
What Kirby sings about is more complicated. Her lyrics are wrapped in analogies; she’s wry and has an imaginative streak. On “Peppermint,” she processes the unsatisfying distance of a friend like an overly sweet candy: “Made out of peppermint, all white and red pins/ Pins and needles on my tongue/ It’s not exactly what I wanted.” On “Juniper,” she sings about motherhood and likens the accumulation of knowledge passed down through generations to a garden: “Oh, true blue juniper/ Never got around to asking her/ The difference between weeds and herbs and flowers.” Closer “Fireman” has her imagining what it would be like to date a fireman, the constant danger but also the consistent time off, time that can be better used for nurturing a loving relationship.
These songs are mostly about wanting to find a relationship where communication comes easy. Kirby, who was homeschooled and raised in a conservative Christian household, is reckoning with feeling out-of-step with everyone else. She spends a lot of the album hoping to catch up, or at least find someone that’s on her same wavelength. “Secret Language” — which borrows its opening lines from one of the most covered songs of all time, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — goes on to wonder: “Do you ever worry that they understand our secret language?” On “Traffic!,” an exuberant standout, she modulates her voice to a digital warble to reflect her alienation: “I’m slipping into an accent/ It’s almost more than a habit/ What are we going to do?/ When I can’t talk straight at you.”
Kirby journeys through the album trying to learn not just how to talk at people but talk to them, become less interior and more emotionally open. On the wonderful “Tap Twice,” she starts off treacly and contented, having found someone who seemingly understands her: “I tap twice on your doorframe and you let me in/ I tap twice on your forehead and a heart appears.” But the end of the song bursts apart into fireworks as the relationship disintegrates: “When I almost broke my wrists trying to bring you back/ And you thrashed around like goldfish in a garbage bag,” she sings. “It seems like you’re only high when you’re holding your breath/ Only bright when you’re broken in half.”
She often sounds broken in half on Cool Dry Place, still looking for the hoped-for space where communication flows freely and the world can finally feel as simple as it should. “Can I come over? Is it too late?” she begs on the title track. “If my head on your shoulder is not too much weight/ Would you keep me in a cool dry place?” Kirby is searching for a connection that makes her feel whole, wanting the same surety she exhibits in her music to leak into practical life. Just like learning how to be confident enough to let go of a song, Kirby is trying to teach herself to be more confident in letting life lead where it may.
Cool Dry Place is out 2/19 via Keeled Scales. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Mogwai’s As The Love Continues.
• The Hold Steady’s Open Door Policy.
• Pauline Anna Strom’s Angel Tears In Sunlight.
• Black Dresses’ Forever In Your Heart.
• Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview On Phenomenal Nature.
• Wild Pink’s A Billion Little Lights.
• Another Michael’s New Music And Big Pop.
• Your Old Droog & Tha God Fahim’s Tha YOD Fahim.
• Lael Neale’s Acquainted With Night.
• Mister Goblin’s Four People In An Elevator And One Of Them Is The Devil.
• Julia Stone’s Sixty Summers.
• Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ Hunter And The Dog Star.
• SG Lewis’ Times.
• Perfume Genius’ IMMEDIATELY remix album.
• Animal Collective’s Crestone original score.
• Hand Habits’ dirt EP.
• Mr Eazi’s Something Else EP.
• Caution’s self-titled EP.