Joanna Sternberg’s music often sounds as though they’re performing a one-person show to an audience of plushies and bedroom clutter. They possess a humble loneliness that is utterly without charm, which of course, somehow, makes their songs helplessly charming. On I’ve Got Me, their second album and their first as a drummer and string arranger, Sternberg balances unvarnished emotion with meticulous craftsmanship. They never offer advice, just a little space for emotion and self-reflection.
They favor kindness and directness over bravura, constructing a musical world of unapologetic idiosyncrasy and tenderness. “When I look back, look back on the years/I see all of the time that I wasted on tears,” they lament on “Mountains High,” pitching the notes like they’re singing in a lo-fi Broadway musical. Sternberg’s deep compassion radiates across I’ve Got Me. By album’s end, they come to feel like a friend—one who’s trying their best not to repeat the same mistakes, but still texts you from their ex’s place in the middle of the night.
Sternberg’s 2019 debut, Then I Try Some More, drew from a stark palette of pain and pity, bordering on self-annihilation. I’ve Got Me—true to its title—is a project of self-reclamation. Almost all of its songs are written in a major key. If on their debut Sternberg surrendered themself wholeheartedly to bad people and destructive relationships, here, they try to unpack those inclinations with quietly defiant insight. “I’m so glad I met you/You helped me see/Just how very much I hate me,” they sing on “People Are Toys to You,” a withering takedown of a former friend. “You said you stayed ’cause you felt bad for me/How sweet of you to call me charity.”
Resilience and overcoming are sometimes equated with artistic merit—but that’s not what’s happening here. On I’ve Got Me, Sternberg culls from a broader emotional range and an expanded musical vocabulary. From the percussive jangle of “People Are Toys to You” to the lovelorn ballad “Right Here,” their compositions are steady scaffolds built from warm acoustic guitar, Brill Building- and bluegrass-inspired string flourishes, and reassuring plucks of upright bass. Whether the combination of piano in unison with steel guitar on “She Dreams,” the electric guitar vamp on “Human Magnet,” or the spare strums of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “The Song,” I’ve Got Me doesn’t sound hushed or intimate. It’s just there, present, as if something obvious suddenly revealed itself to you.
Sternberg’s songs, so frank and free of pretense, may recall the Magnetic Fields, or the anti-folk of Kimya Dawson or Jeffrey Lewis. Unlike those artists, though, Sternberg writes unmediated by neurotic or self-aware humor; this is pain and joy without a punchline. Think of this album like an oblong version of Carole King’s landmark 1971 album Tapestry: Sternberg is presenting a new canon of inverted love songs, each one so sturdy and true that they could withstand being covered by the lowliest of bands and still sound like gifts. Their words are both the dark voice in the back of your head and the friendly one urging you to buck up. “All my faults and flaws and lies/Are no one’s fault but mine,” they sing on the title track, a song that climbs up and down the scales, mirroring the ambivalence of a phrase like “I’ve got me.” Yes, it’s true: We have to live our entire lives with ourselves. At least we’ve got company.
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