Singer-songwriter Julie Byrne’s new album has the lucidity and tactility of a healing crystal. Not unlike Phil Elverum, she paints sublime, awestruck moments when simple things become overwhelming.
There are two things you can’t escape: the sky and yourself. It serves us, then, to understand both. Not Even Happiness, the pristine new album from singer-songwriter Julie Byrne, probes cosmic notions such as these with wonder and aplomb. Wanderer, dreamer, naturist, loner, romantic—with her bold fingerpicking and deep voice, Byrne makes these well-worn identities feel newly alive. Not Even Happiness has all the lucidity and tactility of a healing crystal—or more to the point, a rose quartz, the one that might help you to love.
Blending folk, new age, and silence, Not Even Happiness is a balm. In both sound and sensibility, it strives for clarity, that ultimate marker of enlightenment. Orchestral arrangements sit subtly in the mix; an occasional flute slides in, or a sample of crashing waves. Byrne solemnly charts the places she’s seen—Kansas, Arkansas, Montana, Wyoming—and fills her lyrics with elemental things. She lies in a “verdant field,” catches “stars from a back porch,” watches a “dove over the prairie.” Her language is diffuse, braiding together themes of autonomy, desire, and struggle, but despite the heft of her poetry, the music exudes disarming ease. It feels much shorter than its 33 minutes. Not Even Happiness imagines a cross-section of Leonard Cohen’s mysticism and Judee Sill’s vulnerability—like the latter artist, Byrne’s keen pop sense and stacked harmonies play out like wind carrying her along. “Because they take themselves lightly, angels can fly,” the philosopher Alan Watts notes in his book Become What You Are, and Byrne seems to mind this idea sonically.
Byrne named her album Not Even Happiness because happiness, perhaps, is not always the point. There are virtues beyond happiness—strength, wisdom, integrity, self-possession—and Byrne honors these. Though she is a nomad, she doesn’t romanticize the position; her rootlessness sounds more like a calling, one that chose her, with sacrifices and doubts. “I have dragged my lives across the country/And wondered if travel led me anywhere,” Byrne sings on “I Live Now As a Singer,” conjuring the sweep of This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren.” She sounds devoted to an inner compass only. On opener “Follow My Voice,” Byrne sings, “I was made for the green, made to be alone,” and she prioritizes her solitude with a sly turn: “I’ve been called heartbreaker/For doing justice to my own.” Not unlike Phil Elverum, Byrne paints sublime, awestruck moments when simple things become overwhelming. “Will I know a truer time/Than when I stood alone in the snow,” she sings. “And the moon was in the sky and shone.” Nearly a capella, she intones, “I’ve been seeking God within.”
Despite this self-reliance, these are patently love songs, processing the unravelling of a heart sewn shut. The human heart is never easy in a Byrne song, though, by nature of its connection to an active human mind. Byrne knows the difference between solitude and loneliness, and she bears the lessons of the former while endeavoring the enormous task of navigating the latter with dignity. On “Morning Dove,” her tone evokes Gillian Welch, as she vividly paints her surroundings—the woods, the endless river—but sweetly admits to trailing off: “I thought of you so presently,” she sings. “I could not wait to tell you the truth.”
Gleaming and steadied and wide, “Sleepwalker” is Not Even Happiness’ most gripping moment. It captures both the infatuated feeling of nascent love and how a dream of life can tempt you to lose control of your own. “I traveled only in service of my dreams,” Byrne sings, “I stood before them all/I was a sleepwalker.” Few contemporary songwriters earn a comparison to Angel Olsen, but in its acuity and grace—what Leonard Cohen called “that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you”—Not Even Happiness makes a case for Byrne as one of them.
Throughout Not Even Happiness, Byrne sounds like a person who might worship the sky, but the majestic “Natural Blue” is a proper ode. There’s nothing particularly unusual about her tale of driving through familiar southwestern towns on tour, but her images evoke the life-affirming feeling of catching the exquisite light just so through a moving car window, while meditating on the changing scenery as it flickers by. “When I first saw you/That feeling, it came over me, too/Natural blue,” Byrne sings. Were “Natural Blue” released a decade ago, perhaps the poet Maggie Nelson would have found something in it to include in her 2009 prose-poem Bluets, a radiant reflection on the color. “When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light” goes Bluets’ final sentence, and a similar logic guides Not Even Happiness, in which the most worthy wandering happens on roads within.