Album of the Year 2017: Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Julie Byrne, the rock in choppy seas (photo: Angela Lewis for portalsmusic.com)

Album of the Year

Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

One of the symptoms of an album becoming a favourite of mine is how protective and selfish I start to feel about it. I’m not alone in this sensation of course; there are some works of art that connect on such a level that you wonder if anybody else quite appreciates just how much they mean to you. For me, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness is one such album: there were definitely times at which I would privately insist that this record struck a specific connection with me alone, even as I shared discussions, listens, and live shows of its material with friends and fellow fans. Amid the chaos and the longueurs and the near-overwhelming cynicism of 2017, it became the album I most wanted to reach for in times of light and dark; the rock in the choppy seas of a year that never fully relented.

I assess and reassess my opinions all the time. Days, months, years later, I come back and reconsider my preferences in lists like these. I missed a lot of albums this year as it is, but I’m aware that even among those I did give time to, there are arguably more ambitious, creative, and timely records than Not Even Happiness. But this is the one I love more than any other. Within its half-hour span, I’ve found musical and emotional nourishment that still has me glowing in awe of and in gratitude for its creator.

I suppose that more than anything else, I’ve found a lot of comfort in Not Even Happiness. Not comfort in the “easy listening” sense, but because its marriage of words and music – and the expressions thereof – resonate so directly. I find something extraordinarily beautiful in the sound of this woman, playing her father’s guitar, singing of “seeking God within” as she navigates various states of impermanence, self-imposed and otherwise. In sound, the album is as crisp as a breeze rolling across a plain, the production rendering these songs in crystal-clear panoramas in which Byrne’s gorgeous voice hovers like a beacon. The stray instrumental embellishments here and there are lovely, from the pillowy, airy synthesisers of ‘I Live Now as a Singer’ to the flutes that bookend ‘Melting Grid’, but there’s little required beyond Byrne’s voice and her flickering fingerpicking to keep me enthralled.

In its structuring, Not Even Happiness brings to mind a written essay, one that’s meandering but never pauses to prattle. Comparatively speaking, it’s slight yet perfectly formed, every element in its brief runtime resting in a comfortable balance, aligned in style and concept without sounding meticulously engineered to the point of coldness. As these nine songs progress, and Byrne orbits ideas of solitude, travel, love and questing both geographically and spiritually, her writing recalls works such as Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse. That these works also hone in on travel as a key theme is another thing entirely, but I’m reminded more of how these writers produce works that drift along seamlessly, organised loosely around a central theme but touching astutely on various philosophies, micro and macro.

It’s in this way that Byrne lets her thoughts unfurl, composed in numerous junctures during her time spent touring the United States. She is fascinated by and beholden to the constant transience her career as a musician has placed her in, and she gazes at her physical and mental surroundings not in disenfranchisement but in wonder, with the occasional tinge of melancholy or weariness. ‘Sleepwalker’ is the most revealing entry in this regard, Byrne singing from a place of sorrow but not one of self-pity. “I travelled only in service of my dreams,” she states, tussling with previous beliefs that to become attached to another is too dicey a prospect in her circumstances. “Before you, had I ever known love?” she asks. Then: “or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?”

She crosses the country, keyless and open-eyed, searching not for personal revelations but for equanimity as she goes. Sometimes it is enough to feel liberated in her nomadic state, gratefully observing the splendour of the cities and the people she passes by, whereas at others, her reveries come with pangs. Solitude is one thing, loneliness another, and in treading the ground between the two, Byrne finds exquisite reserves of feeling: “will I know a truer time / Than when I stood alone in the snow / And the moon was in the sky and it shone / And all the land glimmered beneath”. On ‘Follow My Voice’, she sings in falsetto that “to me this city’s hell / But I know you call it home”, and emphasises with sadness but no regret that “I’ve been called heartbreaker / For doing justice to my own”. Her journey is unselfishly her own, and it’s a beautiful thing to follow.

Gentle pockets of wisdom are scattered throughout Not Even Happiness, but it’s clear Byrne understands she is no oracle. Even when making peace with the changes and compromises her choices have wrought upon her life, there is still much that mystifies and eludes her in this world. She closes the album with an open question: “shall I be ever near the edge of your mystery?” Yet while she may not know all there is, she places her faith in the sublime, confident that natural wonders will continue to give her solace no matter where she travels or what she experiences. At the heart of the album, ‘Natural Blue’ most directly articulates this idea. I am constantly stirred by Byrne’s repeated mantra on this song, offered between wordless sighs and an aching string arrangement: a touchingly simple and powerful ode to the everyday phenomena that can leave us humbled and moved beyond belief.

On Not Even Happiness, Byrne is so effective at communicating these thoughts and emotions with poise and intimacy, and I’m grateful to have had it as a companion in 2017, wherever I have been. As winter took hold, I was lucky enough to see Byrne perform at London’s Union Chapel with one of my best friends. Sat in the pews, cradling mugs of hot chocolate with our feet slowly thawing from the cold, we and the hundreds present watched and listened so raptly, the atmosphere was one of hushed and hallowed awe. After the show, I got to meet Julie at the back of the hall, and she signed my copy of Not Even Happiness with a line from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Morning’: “if there is a place further from me, I beg you do not go”. Fittingly, this is an album I haven’t wanted to stray far from for quite some time. I treasure it like no other album of the past year.

“Follow my voice. I am right here.”

05/01/18

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Posted on January 5, 2018, in End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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