Julia Stone – ‘Sixty Summers’ review: an imperfect, joyful art-pop reinvention

Some of the most interesting music she’s ever made – with or without her brother Angus

As successful as the career of Angus & Julia Stone has been on a united front, it’s clear the siblings have still had to work through some kinks on their own. Brother Angus, for one, underwent several identity shifts on his own accord, making records as Angus Stone, Lady of the Sunshine and Dope Lemon before settling on the latter. As for Julia, the elder Stone crafted two careful retreads of the kind of music she’d be making under the family moniker in the early 2010s before seeming to step away from solo work almost entirely.

‘Sixty Summers’, Julia’s third solo LP, arrives nine years after her last – the result of roughly four years of stop-start recording sessions and the inevitable COVID-19 delays. As such, one might expect the end result to be both slap-dash in nature and inconsistent in its execution. The album’s horn-driven opener ‘Break’ is enough to shatter that notion. Its dizzying rhythm and celebratory refrain (“Darling, darling / You take my breath away”) recall TV On The Radio’s ‘Golden Age’ as well as ‘Love This Giant’ – the album that ‘Sixty Summers’ co-producer St. Vincent made with David Byrne. Stone injects enough of her own personality into the performance, however, that it’s able to remain distinctively hers.

The years Stone spent on ‘Sixty Summers’ were not wasted. She’s mostly shed the framework of starry-eyed folk-rock, inhabiting a broader sonic palette that often results in some of the most interesting music she’s ever made – with or without Angus. ‘Unreal’ and ‘Easy’ both implement a vocoder in their arrangements, the former using it to create a bed of robotic vocals atop a glitchy cloud-rap beat, while on the latter it doubles as a harmonic counterpart to Stone’s speak-sung verses amid plucked basslines and lavish Hammond organ. A vocoder may seem not all that extraordinary an instrument choice, but these little details might not have even been conceivable on either 2010’s ‘The Memory Machine’ or 2012’s ‘By The Horns’.

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Within this new musical environment, Stone works through a spectrum of emotions. She both lets them simmer – “I was only a little bit lonely / Trying to reach out for somebody to love me” on ‘Unreal’ – and boil over – “You’re giving me nothing / It’s fucking me up” on ‘Substance’. Nearly every chorus on ‘Sixty Summers’ addresses or alludes to an unnamed ‘you’, but the record isn’t insular. Stone’s conviction cuts through more than it ever has before in her solo work.

The only moments on ‘Sixty Summers’ that hold it back are when Stone falls into old habits. Even within exciting new musical surroundings, songs like ‘Free’ and closer ‘I Am No One’ come off as inconsequential filler – the former for its treacly, simplistic vocal delivery and the latter for its woozy acoustic meandering. ‘We All Have’, the fourth single, is another case in point: a beige piano ballad on an album at its best when bursting with technicolour.

The National’s Matt Berninger feebly attempts to turn the song into a duet, all while sounding half-asleep. Both he and Stone are entirely capable and distinctive in their own right, but when they sing the chorus together it sounds like chalk and cheese. Stone, of course has history with The National – ‘By The Horns’ features a pleasant cover of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and the band were enlisted for Stone’s ‘Songs For Australia’ project. This collaboration, though, does not work in either’s favour.

Though not without its faults, ‘Sixty Summers’ showcases an artist revelling in a fresh creative process. This kind of adaptability and subsequent evolution will surely result in a uniformly excellent solo effort from Stone in summers to come.

Details

Julia Stone new album 2021 Sixty Summers
  • Release date: April 30
  • Record label: BMG
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