When it’s only January but you’re already convinced you’re listening to one of the finest albums of the year, then it’s highly possible you’ve heard something very special indeed. Step forward US folk singer Julie Byrne, whose second album is a delicate masterpiece, one that takes traditional Americana and imbues it with a soft sensuality, using lush melodies and evocative lyricism to conjure up a roving, lovelorn narrative that it’s impossible not to be spellbound by.
Like Vashti Bunyan before her – an otherworldly singer-songwriter who travelled around in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan – Byrne’s backstory paints her as something of a nomad. The album was recorded in her childhood home in New York state, but she’s lived in numerous far-flung locations across the States over the past few years, from Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Massachusetts, Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans. Currently residing in New York City, where she works part-time as a park ranger, her own mythology plugs in perfectly to the roaming, unctuous sound of ‘Not Even Happiness’. A timeless creation, the record’s nine carefully crafted tracks draw gracefully on the past 50 years of folk music. You can hear shades of 1960s Joni Mitchell here and a warm blast of 1970s Sandy Denny there, as well as whispers of 1980s Kate Bush, a not unpleasant smattering of 1990s Enya and a fair whack of 2000s Laura Marling, especially in Byrne’s mellow but unflappable vocal.
Opener ‘Follow My Voice’ sets the elegant tone, with gently picked guitar laid over Byrne’s evocative visions of double rainbows and passing clouds, delivered in hushed reverence. The lilting ‘Natural Blue’ mixes the poetry of the open road (“Sun split ember / Fields that span both ways forever”) with Byrne’s own romantic experience (“When I first saw you / The sky it was such a natural blue”) to create the most touching kind of love song. ‘All The Land Glimmered’ offers a more buoyant spin on her pastoral sound, but it’s still unquestionably lovely. With ‘self-care’ one of 2017’s biggest buzzwords, we can think of few better ways to treat your mind and soul than with ‘Not Even Happiness’.