Creating art can be lonely. When Sarah Beth Tomberlin started writing the songs that would make up her debut album alone in her bedroom, she was trying to reach out to people who felt the same way she did. “It all came from being super isolated,” she said back in 2018. “In any possible way you could think of isolation, that’s what I was experiencing. At the time, it felt like this isolation was directed solely at me. It was so much that it had to be purposeful. Something good had to come out of it or it could very much kill me.”
The songs on At Weddings untangled complex ideas — sorting through confusing thoughts about faith, self-doubt, the emptiness that we all feel sometimes — and they did so with music that was still and uncompromising. The title of Tomberlin’s second album, i don’t know who needs to hear this…, is a vulnerable open end, a recognition that perhaps the audience for these sorts of slow folk songs is limited, but that every connection forged through them matters. “I don’t know who needs to hear this, sometimes it’s good to sing your feelings,” Tomberlin sings on the album’s lullaby of a closing track. “And every time I open my mouth, hope something halfway helpful falls out.”
The soft, tender music that Tomberlin makes is more than up to that task. Her debut At Weddings was marvelous, a work of low-key genius songwriting that kept revealing layers to itself with time. The 2020 Alex G-produced Projections EP was a stepping stone, giving Tomberlin’s songs more definition but sacrificing none of their potency. i don’t know who needs to hear this… expands her universe slightly, as most sophomore albums do, but it still sounds gentle and small and immensely assured. It’s the first Tomberlin album made in a proper studio, at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn; she co-produced it with Philip Weinrobe, with Shahzad Ismaily and Told Slant‘s Felix Walworth serving as a backing band. There’s a bit more of everything — plinking keys, subtly pushing drums, expressive horns — but it’s all applied with a deft hand. It’s an extremely considered album; every sound and lack thereof feels intentional. Tomberlin leaves a lot of open space in her music, opting for unfussy arrangements that let her voice and melodies do the emotional heavy lifting. Her songs are spare but not skeletal. i don’t know…’s biggest moments — the crackling “happy accident,” the communal lift of “idkwntht” — are held for the end, a climactic reward after an immersive listen that uses silence to drown out the noise.
For all its hymnal minimalism, her songs contain a lot of personality. i don’t know… is home to some scathing burns. Tomberlin writes withering takedowns, both of her own behavior and other people’s. On “born again runner,” she finds herself watching a sermon from the balcony, trying to “sync my breathing with the AC” and stave off a panic attack. “You preach peace and patience, but you don’t seem to have your own/ And I’m tired of calling your bluff,” she sings. “I know I’ve said it more than just once/ I know I’m not Jesus, but Jesus, I’m trying to be enough.” “collect caller” directs her ire at one of the music industry’s many clout chasers: “Go stack your followers/ Networking at every show/ Could build the Tower Of Babel as you babble on.” “tap” reflects her own struggle with social media and the attention economy and how the internet can make you feel dead inside. “Tap the heart until I hate myself/ Hit the square and rearrange myself,” she sings. “I don’t like what it does to me/ Never makes me want to laugh or sing.” The song’s true breakthrough comes after she puts down the phone and takes a walk outside, as she reminds herself that she doesn’t have to be anything, that sometimes just existing is enough.
Tomberlin’s songs tend to zero in on individual moments, treating them with a certain amount of reverence. “stoned” takes place during a seething late-night stumble home from a party; on “sunstruck” she plays back a conversation in her head from every angle while waiting for the dawn to come. She allows herself to luxuriate in her feelings, times when she was too angry or too self-pitying or too uncertain. She tries and fails and tries again to be comfortable with what she has and believe in herself. Her personal revelations might take a while to stick, but they’re worth seeing through.
She comes to one of these conclusions on the stunning album opener “easy,” which unfolds over six minutes of gradually increasing tension. You can hear Tomberlin pick herself up off the ground, brush herself off, and build a backbone in real time. “I always keep it quiet/ I’ll sit up on the shelf/ No real desire spoken/ And I deny myself,” she sings at the beginning. “‘Cause I am so easy/ I’m always so easy.” The song sees her worrying about whether she’s too accommodating, wondering if she lets others take up too much space to her own detriment. She comes to understand her pattern and then tries to break it: “The one who’s always easy/ Why am I always easy?” she sings. “Don’t wanna be so easy/ Stop telling me I’m easy.” Her desire to stop is emphatic.
The music that Tomberlin makes can be unassuming — it requires a patience and stillness that can be hard to hold onto in an increasingly chaotic world. But there’s power in commanding attention like that, demanding it. “These songs are simple, but it ain’t easy,” she sings on the closing title track, bringing the album full circle. “To sing it like it is, believe me.” It can often be hard to imagine that anyone cares; making art can be an isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. On i don’t know who needs to hear this…, Tomberlin creates a space for herself and her listeners that makes you lean in just a little bit closer and feel that connection. She lays bare her messy emotions and hopes that they will resonate with someone, somewhere.
i don’t know who needs to hear this... is out 4/29 via Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Future’s I NEVER LIKED YOU
• Bloc Party’s Alpha Games
• Toro y Moi’s MAHAL
• Girlpool’s Forgiveness
• Let’s Eat Grandma’s Two Ribbons
• Melody’s Echo Chamber’s Emotional Eternal
• Willie Nelson’s A Beautiful Time
• Miranda Lambert’s Palomino
• Kehlani’s Blue Water Road
• MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs
• Röyksopp’s Profound Mysteries
• Kelly Lee Owens’ LP.8
• Frog Eyes’ The Bees
• The Head And The Heart’s Every Shade Of Blue
• Congotronics International’s Where’s The One?
• Karen Elson’s Green
• Frontperson’s Parade
• William Basinski & Janek Schaefer’s . . . On Reflection
• Julie Doiron & Dany Placard’s Julie & Dany
• Caution’s Arcola
• Lou Roy’s Pure Chaos
• Hey, ily’s Psychokinetic Love Songs
• Sofi Tukker’s Wet Tennis
• Many Voices Speak’s Gestures
• No/Mas’ Consume/Deny/Repent
• Helms Alee’s Keep This Be The Way
• Rammstein’s Zelt
• Blossoms’ Ribbon Around The Bomb
• Devil Master’s Ecstasies Of Never Ending Light
• Pierre Kwenders’ José Louis And The Paradox Of Love
• Dälek’s Precipice
• Ockham’s Blazer’s self-titled
• Diane Coffee’s With People
• Shilpa Ray’s Portrait Of A Lady
• Ted Nugent’s Detroit Muscle
• Louie Vega’s Expansions In The NYC
• Dana Gavanski’s When It Comes
• V.C.R.’s The Chronicles Of A Caterpillar: The Egg
• Action Bronson’s Cocodrillo Turbo
• Psy’s Psy 9ths
• Secret People’s Secret People
• Unexplained Aerial Phenomenon’s Casual Abductions
• Flora Purim’s If You Will
• Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me (20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
• Charles Mingus’ The Lost Album Live At Ronnie Scott’s
• Nicholas Britell’s Succession season 3 soundtrack
• Faye Webster’s Car Therapy Sessions EP
• St Lucia’s Utopia I EP
• Dumb Numbers & Mevlins’ Broken Pipe EP