Julie Byrne became a shared secret among music obsessives with 2014’s Rooms With Walls and Windows, a beguiling compilation of two earlier cassettes that blurred the edges of folk and ambient in the manner of Grouper and early Cat Power. She invoked the great outdoors and the open road on her breakthrough, 2017’s Not Even Happiness, which cleared away the lo-fi murk and added graceful strings to serene explorations of intimacy and aloneness more reminiscent of psychedelic folkies like Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan. Six years later, the itinerant Buffalo, New York, singer-songwriter incorporates harp, synth, and piano alongside her nimbly fingerpicked guitar and dusky vocals; the broader palette and cosmic scope—she invokes “distant galaxies” in the first verse—feel like a logical progression of her astral folk.
Byrne’s new album is her most stunning yet; it is also the product of almost unthinkable circumstances. In June 2021, halfway through the making of the album, her producer, synth player, and longtime collaborator Eric Littmann—who was integral in sculpting the tranquil sound world of Not Even Happiness and receives a dedication of endless, unconditional love in its liner notes—died unexpectedly at the age of 31. Largely written before Littmann’s passing and eventually completed with producer Alex Somers, who has skillfully conjured lush atmospheres on recordings by Julianna Barwick and Sigur Rós’s Jónsi, The Greater Wings feels like a leap forward. The songs honor their late co-creator less through melancholy than a hungry attentiveness to the minutiae of desire, loss, and memory. This is mourning as a form of meditative practice, of constant renewal. From an artist who can quote Leonard Cohen’s poetry by heart, here’s an album at which that painstaking observer of love and death might’ve tipped his fedora; it’s also limpid and bountiful enough that it could’ve been marketed under German avant-garde jazz label ECM’s 1970s motto, “the most beautiful sound next to silence.”
Despite the lengthy break between albums, The Greater Wings picks up right where Not Even Happiness left off with its last song, “I Live Now as a Singer,” which introduced sparkling synthesizer as Byrne peered beyond the natural blue skies. “At night beneath the universe, you walk with me/Shall I be ever near the edge of your mystery,” she sang at the record’s close. Littmann’s vintage Prophet synth ripples on “Summer Glass,” whose lyrics are so precise, so stuffed with vivid imagery, and so eccentrically phrased. There’s the joint lit with the end of a cigarette, the vision of the narrator’s skin one day turning to dust so that she may “travel again,” the way Byrne saves the bittersweet title image—“the shape of your hand left in the dust of summer glass”—until the penultimate line. Two phrases zero in on the album’s main preoccupations: “You are the family that I chose,” Byrne declares before an exquisite instrumental bridge, and then, “I want to be whole enough to risk again,” she sings as the song ends.
Few could be entirely whole after losing a family member, chosen or otherwise, but The Greater Wings gleams through the cracks. Byrne’s willingness to take a fresh plunge especially pays off on “Moonless,” self-described as both “a breakup song” and her first song written on the piano. With Marilu Donovan’s harp and Jake Falby’s strings adorning Byrne’s keys and unusually rich vocals, the production has the incantatory power of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. The lyrics follow suit in their concise abundance, from “that night at the old hotel” where Byrne’s narrator found “whatever eternity is” to her multivalent reclamation of self, “I’m not waiting for your love.” She ventures further on “Hope’s Return,” a cavernous, strummy reworking of a 2020 collaboration with experimental artist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma in which Somers makes the unexpected, very Sigur Rós-like decision to play acoustic guitar with a violin bow. Or take “Conversation Is a Flowstate,” a gauzy rebuke to a disrespectful romantic partner—an unspecified musician of prominence—that’s once again overstuffed with quotables (“I got blood on the sheets, it’s all right,” she sings, with the gnomic intensity of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar). None of this wayfaring is exactly out of character for Byrne: Following immediately after “Summer Glass,” “Summer’s End” dives headlong into headiness with harp glissandi and lolling chimes, but as a drifting mid-album instrumental it’s not unlike Not Even Happiness’ “Interlude.”
Byrne’s deft fingerstyle acoustic guitar also returns, brilliantly. The opening title track, a gorgeous elegy to Littmann, is silvery chamber folk of Nick Drake proportions: With great economy, Byrne alludes to their earliest shows together before gesturing toward her heartbreakingly positive vision of mourning when she sings, “I hope never to arrive here with nothing new to show you.” Littmann’s absence also looms over “Portrait of a Clear Day,” where Byrne sings in an aphoristic mode, “Love affirms the pain of life.” But wry regret flickers on another guitar-centered song, “Flare” (“I could have done better/You’re not the only one”), while “Lightning Comes Up From the Ground” aches with physical longing (“I tell you now what for so long I did not say/If I have no right to want you, I want you anyway”). This is still the same earnest seeker who once sang, “I’ve seen a double rainbow, I got a complicated soul,” but The Greater Wings is no funeral, and Byrne’s calm assurance renders her words irresistibly commanding.
The Greater Wings ends with an outlier. “Death Is the Diamond” is reportedly the only song on the album that was completely written after Littmann’s death. After a luminous ambient introduction, it is a stark piano ballad cloaked in tape hiss, Byrne’s formidable voice at its most raw. It’s a gut-wrenching final tribute to Littmann, a warm nod to Byrne’s surviving family of choice, and a dazzling encapsulation of Byrne’s implicit argument that love means constantly becoming new. “Alive, moving through dusk/Alive, if only once/You make me feel like the prom queen that I never was,” she sings. In moments of vulnerability like this, Byrne glimpses the sublime.
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