By: Seth Stevens
“I was made for the green, made to be alone.”
When Julie Byrne sings these words on the opening track of Not Even Happiness, you believe her. It takes no convincing. Her voice stands alone between the finger picking of her guitar, a buoy for her melancholy. Byrne’s second record is one steady, self-assured moment of that melancholy caught in 32 short minutes, and all of it deserves your attention.
I say ‘deserves’ instead of ‘demands’ — Byrne does not demand anything. She’s grappled with her demons (sometimes she won, sometimes they did); now she stands, sure of herself and her art. She’s made great leaps in her work since her first album. Rooms With Walls and Windows was serene, but it had no center. It was a guitar and a hidden voice whispering its substance away. She sounded afraid of something, glossing over her own truths for fear of uncovering them. It was more uncertain and bashful, with the charm but not the fullness of a great artist. In Not Even Happiness, we get the voice of someone who has felt their own latent pain and ushered it into expression.
Read any short biography of the singer-songwriter and you will know that she whisked across a series of states while in her 20s. She’s hopped from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Seattle to New Orleans. She fulfills the archetype of the wandering folk artist; in songs like ‘Sleepwalker’ and ‘Morning Dove,’ you can almost feel the guitar hopping from place to place. That energy lives in the album and keeps it plugging forward, but Julie’s voice has a weariness to it that resembles the exhaustion of travel. Here we get both sides of the coin of constant movement: there is a special energy tied to it, but a special loneliness as well.
Julie Byrne harnesses both of these forces, and that’s what makes it interesting despite its sparse instrumentation. The songs are mostly guitar and vocals dipping and diving between each other. The rhythms bump and shift as she plays her guitar, but her voice is stable and fixed. Its deep register is enchanting and somber and everything you could want from a great folk artist. Woodwinds slip into the mix like a breeze in your hair — they don’t bowl you over. That was not her goal in making this album. She wants you to stand with her and remember the great irony of loneliness — that it’s really universal, something we all feel.