The acoustic singer-songwriter album has been around as long as recorded music itself, tracing its roots from Woody Guthrie through the genre’s most iconic figure, Bob Dylan, and onward through contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens (at least on his 2015 masterpiece, Carrie & Lowell). For reasons perhaps historical or perhaps owed to the nature and sound of the genre itself, acoustic folk songs are often melancholic, jaded, naturalistic and geographically-minded. With this in mind, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness fits so neatly and squarely into the canon that it’s practically archetypal. Heartbreak-induced sadness? Check. Natural imagery? Check. Road-weariness in the American West? Check. Acoustic finger-picking, limited overdubs, dripping sepia-toned nostalgia? Check check check.
The nice thing about an album like this is that, because there are few moving parts (the arrangements are never complex, the song structures and lyrics clear and succinct), it becomes easier to evaluate. The record is made essentially of the following parts: lyrics, vocals, melodies, finger picking patterns and the occasional ghostly harmony or instrumental addition. Thus we can pick apart the album logically and systematically, which may go against the spirit of music criticism and the entire idea of music as a subjective art that is more than the sum of its component parts, but hey, its my blog and my review.
Lyrics – Because folk records are often so stripped back and the progressions so simple and familiar, lyrics are the most crucial part of the experience. Julie Byrne’s record is very much an album about sitting outside, setting the scene poetically through observation of natural imagery, and then being introspective about her relationships and her life on tour. Nothing is straightforward, and although the songs sound like they are grounded in real experiences, the sentiments feel transient and nonspecific.
Take “Natural Blue”, which many of my contemporaries online have called the record’s best track. Julie explained that the song was born from an unexpectedly sublime night in Boulder, Colorado between tiring bouts of touring, but little of that personality shines through in lines like “Stars over a back porch / They’re talking but I don’t say much anymore.” Standalone, that lyric is actually great, but in the context of the album, where every other line consists of Julie sitting outside thinking about being lonely, it kind of loses its punch. Other examples include: “I went out walking in the wood / I thought of you so presently”, “I’ve been sitting in the garden / Singing to the wind”, and “We’ve been lying on the shore for awhile / And our sun is still”. If these are metaphors, they’re pretty fluffy. If they represent reality, they feel like some default Julie turns to when she wants to be emotional.
Sure, Byrne can spin poetry out of every tree, sky and field she lays eyes on, and from time to time they are arresting (“Preserve my memory of the mystic west / as I lay no claim to the devotion I felt”), but the end result is a wash of feelings, a grey-scale wave of nostalgia that never feels tied to one specific incident, one idea or one emotion, and for that reason I think this album fails lyrically. It’s never resonant because it never captures anything more personal than “I was made for the green / Made to be alone”.
Vocals – One of the record’s greatest strengths is Julie’s voice, which is vaguely bluesy but soothing, familiar, comfortable and warm, and experiencing the record is like being wrapped in a cozy blanket. She occasionally hits falsetto notes, and she deftly glides between them smoothly and precisely, like running water. Her voice also bears a strong resemblance to New Zealand singer-songwriter Tiny Ruins (who I like quite a bit).
Melodies – Julie can also write an excellent melody as easily as she can sing swiftly through one. They are elusive, sad and nostalgic, with small contours tossed out like afterthoughts and reflections just out of one’s grasp. No problems here.
Guitar – The best songs on Not Even Happiness are the ones with full, resonant finger-picking arrangements that perfectly compliment Julie’s melody lines. Thus, my favorite tracks on the record are the first-half highlights “Sleepwalker” and “Melting Grid.” Like the best Frank Ocean song, Julie succeeds here in crafting songs that fool you into thinking there are more than just one instrument on the track. However, the unwavering guitar tone and general similarity of the picking arrangements, which are never sub par, still grow a bit repetitive and leave something to be desired on the back-half. Julie is clearly an excellent guitarist and her work here holds up, but I would have liked to see a couple tracks use something like three patterns looping around each other, as she certainly seems capable.
Odds and Ends – Byrne rarely taps into anything bigger than a distant synth, shrouded in reverb, or a couple of mournful, distant ‘ooh’ harmonies during choruses. One of the best additions is a flute melody line on “Melting Grid”, which expertly fits the color palette of the record. That song even introduces a soft tambourine and harmonica at the end, making it by far the most fleshed-out and full song here. “Natural Blue” features some nice watery synths and the guitar is electric and chorused (think Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah) and “Interlude” is, well, a synth interlude. One bright moment is in the final coda of “All the Land Glimmered Beneath”, where outdoors sounds of birds and wind encompass Julie and set her in the environment she’s singing about. The only song that doesn’t feature the guitar as its main instrument is the closer, “I Live Now As A Singer”, which doesn’t talk about Julie’s artistic life as much as you’d like, and also progresses so slowly behind sappy, held-out synth chords that manages to end the record with its worst track – it’s not especially beautiful and I don’t really care for the synth tones, either.
Album Concept – A interlude splits the record evenly into two four-track halves, but there isn’t an obvious difference between sides A and B. The first half concerns itself a bit more with places and traveling, while the second is more stationary and serene, but both records have ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ tracks regarding her lover, both talk about touring and both definitively take place outdoors. The second side is a bit slower and more atmospheric on the whole, but there isn’t really a natural arc to the track-listing here aside from ending on the two gentlest songs. Julie never wavers far from her main talking points – thinking about relationships, being outside, feeling lonely, getting tired of traveling – which both keep the record focused but also keep it confined.
Overall, despite the charm of Julie’s voice and her knack for strong melodies, there isn’t enough lyrical substance here for me to say this is a standout singer-songwriter or folk record. Everything here’s been done before, by people that also have excellent voices and who also have more to say, both sonically and emotionally. This album is very pretty, but pretty albums are not hard to find these days. I enjoyed this quite a bit before taking a closer look into it, and so it’s great as background music, gorgeous even, but really good albums have to stand up to cursory investigation, and Not Even Happiness does not.