The opening sounds of “Blow” off of Tara Jane O’Neil’s new self-titled album move us effortlessly in ambient swells, before receding gracefully into tender guitar chords and a melody fitting for the soft and emotional sounds of 70s folk/pop. The easy, reflective nature of the song suddenly reminds one of ripples circling off a lake or the way the blue sky so subtly shifts in color at twilight. Tones of electric piano delicately emerge behind the colorful melody of the chorus, which seems to have its edges blurred by ambivalent evenings and nostalgic memories.
But that’s not the sound of O’Neil’s record. After a listen to the full album, “Blow” comes off as a dim light in a dark folk sound, one that is more meditative and introspective than bubbly and breezy like the aforementioned track. This contrast, though, only seems to serve the layered sounds and lyrics of O’Neil’s songs.
According to O’Neil’s Bandcamp page, half the record was recorded live at Wilco’s Loft Studio in Chicago, with the aid of a lineup of musicians including Mark Greenberg, who helped to record and mix the album with O’Neil. The other half of the album was recorded in her home base of Los Angeles. This split in sound is evident on the record, in between the tight production of some songs and a live feel that exhibits a more raw side to the singer. This contrast doesn’t seem to hurt the record, though, as the sonic landscape from track to track benefits from a slight shift in the presentation of O’Neil’s work.
Most striking is O’Neil’s voice, which is tuned into a timbre between melancholy and peace, finding it fits perfectly in between the spacious and moody tracks that populate the LP. Just as striking is her sense of atmosphere throughout the songs, evident in a beautiful transition between the tracks “Joshua” and “Kelly.” On the second song starts, her voice emerges after a few measures of strummed guitar:
“I am awake
Stars explode in my ribcage”
The intertwining of the internal and external world is an imagery that O’Neil feels at home in, where the natural world is always contrasting and confirming the emotional and spiritual states of human beings. Like on “Joshua” when she sings “visible under skin of night,” mixing the experience of nature and interpersonal relationships mix like a palette of paints on an easel of her making.
The haunting soundscape of the album paired with the evocative lyrics of natural imagery make me feel like a traveler in a landscape that is both familiar and foreign, perhaps existing in that subtle change that happens from day to day in any life. In this place I feel both awed and oppressed by nature and time. After the soaring end of “Purple” leaves us floating, we move into the meditative “Pink,” where O’Neil sings:
“Pink sky fire you mocking light
Draw to come the borderline
Draw to come just overnight
A distant sun
A dark fire”
This oblique portrait of a life paints itself in many colors; that of the rapture of love, of the beauty of nature, and of personal journeys through time and space. I feel the need to, as the artist puts it, to “release the body.” By the end song “Metta,” O’Neil is wishing someone peace, happiness, and freedom from what sounds like “suff,” what I suppose to be a cut-off pronunciation of suffering. Maybe the artist realizes the sometimes futile nature of asking for these things, and cuts herself off mid-word. With O’Neil, it’s hard to know, though her rich and portentous compositions seem to to have the unnerving quality of being able to speak for themselves.