Album Review: “Not Even Happiness” by Julie Byrne

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Rating: 8.3/10

On a long drive through the western mountains, as the sky glitters with twilight and loneliness, I place Julie Byrne’s new album “Not Even Happiness” into the CD player. After a few moments of anticipation, Byrne’s tender guitar work gives way to her ethereal voice, spilling out of the speakers and filling the car with the sounds of “Follow My Voice,” the opener on her new LP. As she ruminates on pain, fear, and relationships, the singer’s voice sends trembles through my body, so warm and ghostly is her delivery; the depth of sound and song culminating in a single flight of “How I love you” as the guitar disappears into the ether. Goosebumps on my skin and fading light in the distance, I know I’m in store for something special.

New York City-based singer and guitarist Byrne continues to document the travails of life, love and traveling throughout “Not Even Happiness,” themes of landscape and solitude emerging from out of the album’s bare and beautiful songs. “Natural Blue,” one of the album’s standout tracks, gently emerges out of soaring ambience and into solemn guitar picking as Byrne meditates on the color of the sky during the day she first saw her love:

“And when I first saw you

The sky, it was such a natural blue”

As the album drifts through travels and emotions, it’s easy to imagine that Byrne has a close relationship between inward searching and outer landscape, painted magnificently on the song “All the Land Glimmered Beneath” among only the bouncy rhythms of her acoustic guitar. Solitude and nature are her place for spiritual reflection and grounding, a place where she knows she belongs:

“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”

Album closer “I Live Now as a Singer” brings us straight into Byrne’s heart. The replacement of guitar with thick synth and strings stands out among the rest of the songs, collapsing the listener into the somber reflection of the lyrics. “And I have dragged my life across the country / And wondered if travel led me anywhere” she sings, lamenting the inescapable pulls of life and love and the sacrifices that define them. Byrne knows she is meant to sing, and that its power brings her closer to a faith in the mystery of life.

Byrne says it best when talking about the song “Follow My Voice,” addressing the themes of fear and pain within it as they relate to our natural ability to love:

“The song is an expression of faith in complete, unmotivated responsiveness in love and that our own capacity to love extends so far beyond the boundaries of what we’ve been told and lead to believe.”   

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