Music Reviews
Not Even Happiness

Julie Byrne Not Even Happiness

(Ba Da Bing!) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Independence can be a freeing and empowering experience that enhances our quality of life. But it can also provide a disconnect, and when we indulge upon it too much we begin to lose sight of how it also affects our surroundings. Julie Byrne has applied this principle in a caring and thoughtful way, as it’s a concern that repeatedly comes to the fore in her succinct body of work.

On her latest, Not Even Happiness, Byrne is starting to get more comfortable with her roving spirit. That sense of drift continues to inspire her, but she’s also becoming aware of how she also feels a responsibility to share those feelings with the public eye. Sung in a stern and disciplined manner, she describes the earthly heartland with a flighty hawk’s lens on Natural Blue. She’s purifying her consciousness as she’s “driving through southwestern towns,” accompanied by a placid electric guitar that’s played with exacting precision as wondrous chamber arrangements elevate the tranquil scenery.

Not Even Happiness centers on the intimate, everyday thoughts that emerge from the unique nature of being on the road. Byrne is so fully attuned with her surroundings that it almost consumes her, like on Melting Grid, where she speaks of an elusive someone that, in reality, speaks more about her own conflicting feelings of pleasure and solitude. Byrne gently insists on the importance of taking things slow, to experience the present and absorb the wisdom that’s ever-present. On All the Land Glimmered, you can just feel her presence as she’s “sitting in a garden,” seeing as she decompresses her thoughts with an evocative fingerpicking melody.

Seemingly assimilating folk artists who rejoice in spiritual uplift, such as Joni Mitchell and Linda Perhacs, Byrne merely relates her own experiences with a diaristic viewpoint. But as opposed to these, though, Byrne doesn’t see love as this all-consuming state of being that anchors her femininity. She’s independent and determined, but mostly fretful about making any compromises that may limit her own mission in life. “I’ve been called heartbreaker / for doing justice to my own,” she sings with a calm demeanor on Follow My Voice, later to say goodbye as she trails into the distance.

Musically, Not Even Happiness isn’t just an extension of the spare, if sometimes unremarkable, compositional elegance of her debut, Room With Walls and Windows. The production is slightly enhanced, and she’s also raised the stakes by featuring a wider array of instruments. Simplicity is still key. But it’s actually in embracing those limitations that she manages to impress; she doesn’t have the greatest range as a singer, but instead of trying to force herself with, say, faux British-sounding or austere Americana affectations, she does have a distinguishable voice that’s effective and harmonious. She’s also taking a chance at emphasizing atmosphere, with ambient interludes and string instruments that give her hermitic endeavors a haunting sense of timelessness.

The decidedly naturalistic Not Even Happiness may imply that Byrne is simply catering to her own desires, but in doing so, she’s actually inviting us to witness her growth as both an artist and an individual. It’s in the album’s final moments where she makes it clear: “And I have dragged my life across the country / and wondered if travel led me anywhere,” she reflects on I Live Now As a Singer, questioning if there’s any worth in leading a working career that coalesces with her roaming proclivities. It sounds like the kind of life that would be perfect for Byrne, and yet she recognizes the detachment that it can provide. The only thing she can do, for the time being, is to carry on.