If there’s a line between passion and tranquility, Julie Byrne walks it without missing a step.
Her latest, an LP titled Not Even Happiness, is songwriting at its most pure, the tracklist reading like a poem; the lyrics like a lullaby. And for an occasional addition of orchestral strings and percussion, the recording is a diary told mainly from the perspective of Byrne and her guitar — everything else is an extra. Opening the album with, “Follow my voice, I am right here/Beyond this life and beyond all fear,” she guides listeners through a journey of desire, affection, faith, and most notably, grief.
“Sleepwalker” evokes the internal conflict of longing and anxiety felt in the face of a newly blossoming love, reading, “I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude/I fought you; I didn’t know how to give it up.” “Natural Blue,” meanwhile, employs nature as a metaphor for passion in a daydream: “Chicory burns grass at your knees/Walk forward from your open wound/Live in dreams, I remain forever/Inside the colors you’ve shown to me.” And “Mourning Dove” offers a reflective, aching take on the overarching theme of desire, lamenting, “Life is short with a breath half taken/I could not even tell you the truth.” An ever-present vulnerability matches the record’s palpable depth.
Folk, as a genre, has been quite dominated by men as of late, with Alabama Shakes and The Lumineers being the only groups with women to be consistent Billboard top 25 presences. But, the bareness of Julie Byrne’s music doesn’t shy away from an inherently feminine sound. Her airiness serves as the antithesis to what contemporary folk and Americana has been defined by. If Mumford & Sons is a crackling campfire in the woods, Byrne is the smoke.