Julie Byrne’s sophomore LP, Not Even Happiness, comes three years after the release of her debut, Rooms With Walls and Windows. Whilst by no means a ground-breaking release for contemporary folk music, Byrne captured the attention of music critics as a result of her airy vocals and gentle guitar playing, creating a downplayed and subtle atmosphere that worked to the singer-songwriter’s strengths. It seemed as if this record was more enticing as a whole than were many of the individual tracks on it, given that its average runtime would breeze by along with Byrne’s lighthearted and lofty performances. That’s not to say that this record was underwhelming to any considerable extent, rather the general mood conveyed on many of the singer’s compositions was often more enticing at the time it was absorbing the listener, but left a much more limited impression in retrospect. Nevertheless, Rooms With Walls and Windows communicated Byrne’s ability as a writer and performer, and established her interesting approach to indie folk music, so it foreshadowed future material from the singer that could build on her sound and appear in a more developed format. Not Even Happiness fits the bill in certain regards; Byrne’s subdued approach to composing is expanded ever so slightly with some more advanced arrangements that nonetheless retain the hushed melancholia of Rooms With Walls and Windows. A significantly shorter release than her debut album, Not Even Happiness breezes by in a similar fashion to its predecessor, which is more apt given the themes relating to the sea, the wind, the Sun and the Earth, with Byrne recounting her naming the album as she walked beside the ocean and felt “a palpable sense of emergence to everything”, saying she would have traded that feeling for nothing, “not even happiness”. This recollection explains the natural themes that appear at numerous points on this record, and such themes provide an urgency to Byrne’s singing that demands the listener’s attention more so than her previous album. Such a development is significant to the progression of Byrne’s sound, and contributes to a record that is, for the most part, successful in picking up from where Rooms With Walls and Windows left off and sees the natural evolution of the artist’s atmospheric approach to folk music.
Follow My Voice introduces Byrne’s new album and features a similar air as to that which appeared on her previous album. The rich, echoey, fingerpicked acoustic guitar with its audible scrapes as Byrne moves up and down the fretboard accompanies the singer’s usual soft whispers, but her lyrical exploration of the pain of loneliness that ultimately sees a hopeful resolution is just enough to keep the listener from being completely swept away by the tranquil mood. The string arrangement is worked into the mix as to perfectly play to the strengths of such an introspective song, with the sole held notes floating atop Byrne’s performance reflecting the lonely mood. Follow My Voice is certainly a solid start to the record, but I worry to some extent that this song too sets the precedent of Byrne’s music being so breezy as to enable the listener to stop actively listening and simple be taken away with the atmosphere this album creates. This may not be a bad thing for everyone, but it leads to a release that is arguably somewhat forgettable as a result. Sleepwalker, despite its title, doesn’t arouse this concern of mine as much, with Byrne’s tuneful fingerpicking displaying some well-written and beautiful melodies, as the singer’s vocal performance comes across as clear and confident, making it far more difficult for the listener’s mind to wander. I have seen Byrne often compared to Joni Mitchell, and whilst I’ve usually seen this as a slightly tenuous comparison, I can certainly detect elements of Mitchell’s softer acoustic sounds on this song. Sleepwalker is certainly as beautiful as much of Mitchell’s work, and Byrne’s lyrical journey into the broad topic of love is dealt with in a similar fashion to many of Mitchell’s lyrics. Overall, Sleepwalker is a highlight both in the tracklisting of Not Even Happiness and across Byrne’s discography thus far, perhaps displaying her ability to captivate the listener with an unaccompanied solo performance better than any other song of hers.
Melting Grid sees the inclusion of some slightly more developed arrangements, with the addition of a flute, an instrument that should perfectly capture and develop the airy atmosphere consistently conveyed across Byrne’s material. Although a very pleasant listen, this track comes across as one of the least ambitious pieces on the album with regards to songwriting and structure. Also, despite displaying many of the usual elements that show up on Byrne’s songs, it feels like one of the more nondescript cuts on the record, with both the guitar and vocal melody being limited to the most basic of contemporary folk sensibilities, resulting in a track that doesn’t feel uniquely like a Julie Byrne song compared to most of her usual work. What’s more, the rather rudimentary development of the song makes it all too easy for the listener to simply be lulled by the sweet sounds, bringing about the recurring reservation I have had for much of the singer-songwriter’s material thus far in her career. Similar restrictive tendencies appear on a handful of tracks later in the tracklisting that prevent them from flourishing into the spellbinding and stunning songs that Byrne has shown herself to be capable of. Of course, all of these tracks are still rather strong and feature some lovely details, such as the sampled sounds of the shore on Sea as it Glides which reinforce the album’s origins nicely, and the embellishments provided by a second acoustic guitar on Morning Dove that complement the main fingerpicking pattern very well. Nonetheless, the hesitations I have regarding the memorability and replay value of these cuts remain, as much as I enjoy them for the time that I am listening to them.
For the most part, Not Even Happiness is a promising development for Julie Byrne, with her songwriting abilities proving to have grown along with her lyric-writing and performance skills. There are few moments on this record that don’t carry Byrne’s soft and alluring charm, but this charm sometimes feels like the prominent feature on certain songs, to the extent that the listener is flooded by Byrne’s soothing stylings, resulting in their full attention not always being completely invested in these tracks, despite how strong their foundations typically are. At its core, Byrne’s work is more than simply easy listening music, given the subtle intricacies of her lyrical style and approach to arranging these pieces, but I can see why some may ultimately view it as such. Nevertheless, I remain highly optimistic about the future direction of the artist’s music, as the evolution she has displayed between her first and latest album is significant and bodes well for future releases.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10