However quiet and calm her voice, Julie Byrne is an incredibly self-assured artist. Her songwriting is immediate and elegant. She herself is a picture of so many folk artists that came before: restless, heartsick, fed up with the modern world and its boorishness. “To me this city’s hell, but I know you call it home / I was made for the green, made to be alone” she sings on album opener “Follow My Voice,” not at all timid. Not Even Happiness, Byrne’s second LP, is a rich work of beauty and—most importantly—clarity.
Byrne’s soft, velveteen voice and expertly plucked guitar are the foundation of Not Even Happiness‘ nine tracks. She is divinely confident, piercing small moments with incredibly observed lyrics (“Driving through southwestern towns that I had been in before / Sun split ember, and fields that span forever, forever”). On “Sleepwalker,” she sings “Before you, had I ever known love / Or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?” at a careful, airy pace. Byrne is the archetype singer-songwriter, intent on solitude but somehow still longing for connection and companionship (“I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude / But I long for you now, even when you just leave the room”). She is an artist of the old order and the new; picking at her guitar, daydreaming of a world with clear skies and green pastures. She has the power to reflect, relive, and heal.
“Melting Grid,” a magnificent piece of songwriting, finds Byrne (accompanied by flute) geographically tracing the places she’s been. Colorado, Wyoming, “Kansas, Arkansas, my fields they’re always rich and in fire.” Julie Byrne is an exceptional songwriter, one with the ability to tell a story while withholding intricate detail. Some of Not Even Happiness‘ most interesting stories are the ones she chooses to not expound upon. “And would you ask my permission the next time you absorb me?” she sings, her tone edgeless but resolute. There’s a sense that Byrne makes music as therapy, which allows her songs the rare opportunity to emanate purity. Not Even Happiness is a record without reservation, a small and quiet world where all things are of equal importance—in a sense, free. Her carefully scored “Interlude” is the perfect example, a simple harmony of strings and nearly inaudible piano atop the calming sound of ocean waves. It is silent, perfect, complete.
“Morning Dove,” Exhibit A for Julie Byrne the Guitarist, is a song from a woman who has spent much her life wanting and waiting. Both measured and urgent, Byrne’s lyrics are once again her greatest revelation; “All I bear, all I sieve, I thought of you so presently” she sings with her heart on both sleeves. She is not so much lovesick as she is a lonely soul, a woman convinced that no matter who or what comes into her life, there is a small piece of her that will always feel incomplete. But she is fighting the urge to isolate. “And life is short as a breath half-taken / I could not wait to tell you the truth.”
On “All the Land Glimmered,” Byrne’s guitar squeaks and clacks beneath her fingers, a necessary distress as she sings “Searching for an anchor, I’ve been seeking god within.” The track that follows, “Sea as It Glides,” is Julie Byrne’s “Hallelujah,” a tranquil walk through her happy place. Her guitar, as ever, is the propeller, and Byrne’s quiet, brilliant voice pays revery the word “You.” There is a sacred quality to the song, as though she has found the god she had been searching for within. Though many (if not all) of the tracks on Not Even Happiness play like love songs, Julie Byrne is not so quick to spill her heart on the page. Her heart is a roaming object, so often distant and closed-off that when she finally lets you into her world, it plays like a breath of fresh sea air.
In the spirit of many great folk records, Not Even Happiness is at once illuminating and aloof. It is the idea of art as therapy, as healing. It’s the work of a growing artist and an eager human being, one unafraid to admit “And yes, I’ve broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was not close to forgiving myself.” She desires clarity, a clear consciousness and an open heart. For Julie Byrne, happiness is simply not enough.
Favorite tracks: “Follow My Voice,” “Sleepwalker,” “Melting Grid,” “Natural Blue,” “Morning Dove,” “Sea as It Glides,” “I Live Now as a Singer”