There are certain formulas that have stood the test of time and the folk singer/songwriter equipped with acoustic guitar is clearly one of them. Although the pillars of the 1960s and 70s—Dylan and Mitchell—might still be the ones truly at the tip of your tongue when the topic is brought up, Chapman, Elliot, and Sufjan have carried us on to modern day. Aided by some blissfully subtle decisions from producer Eric Littman, Julie Byrne has carved out a nice niche for herself on Not Even Happiness. The album’s transient landscape effortlessly maintains a natural sensibility, while also tapping into some gorgeous electro-acoustic findings. Byrne’s lyrics are beautifully introspective and focused so the album reads as a personal journey with words of wisdom for all people.
Built on themes of nature and dreams, Byrne finds herself torn between her relationship with herself and that of another person. Nostalgia comes through quite often on a time when Byrne spent much of her time alone, needing only nature as a source of peace: “I’d cross the country and I’d carry no key/Couldn’t I look up at the stars from anywhere” she breathes on “Sleepwalker.” Later on in that song, however, Byrne admits this time was imperfect: “I saw peace, and it never came to me/They often spoke as though I had been set free/But I traveled only service of my dreams.” In retrospect, Byrne sees her former self as a sleepwalker, living under the influence of her own dreams without a sense of the outside world. This idea that Byrne’s time in nature offered a false sense of peace explains her sacrificial line from the first tune: “To me, this city’s hell/But I know you call it home” and although it seems as though the relationship in this tune didn’t pan out, Byrne’s need for others to come into her world is expressed.
As the album pushes forward, Byrne marks significant relationships with an association between the other person and nature, reflecting the idea that she needs to balance her love of nature with her human connections. “Natural blue” constantly reuses the line “when I first saw you, the sky it was such a natural blue.” This also works into the continuing theme of dreams and solitude. Again on “Natural Blue,” Byrne spouts “Live in dreams, I remain forever/inside the colors you’ve shown to me,” thus combining a theme about her sense of self with her relationship with another.
The real crux of the project is finding a way to let others into our world without changing ourselves. There are certain things that we keep hidden and perhaps solitude can provide comfort, however, it’s also important to find people in life who we can connect with. Also, in Byrnes’s execution, there’s a sense that the message can work on a rather broad scale. It doesn’t seem to be an album about a monogamous love story, simply a message about relationships as a whole.
Besides the major pieces of her emotional journey, Byrne constantly offers really striking wordplay. Simple phrases such as “life’s as short as a breath half taken,” “from your lips which splashed my dull hose with muses,” and “you’re the sea as it glides” decorate her tunes, whereas more complex ideas deepen the impact of the work. “And the stars are well where they are/For those who belong to them,” she speaks on “Sea as it Glides,” speaking to the people out there who remain alone in nature as she once was. The whole project also seems to come together in the last song where Byrne wonders “And I have dragged my life across the country/And wondered if travel led me anywhere/There’s a passion in me, but it stands no long for those things/Tell me how it feels for you to be in love.”
The sonic content is undoubtedly a bit one dimensional, but certain details add to the beauty of the words. “Melting Grid” kicks off with a sort of pan flute sound effect adding to the airiness of the work. Elsewhere, sound effects hide in the background like the waves crashing on the shore on “Sea As it Glides.” Backing vocals also play an integral role, particularly on “Morning Dove,” where an intimate, lilting melody is ornamented by these glorious soprano-range “oohs” that swell ever so slightly. Then, the project really comes full circle on the final track with these hymnal keyboard chords looping throughout as Byrne’s voice gets replaced by soaring strings. These details feel effortless, but they clearly pack a lot of precision and delicacy.
Not Even Happiness is a beautiful accomplishment. It’s not quite a concept album, but the lyrical focus gives it a sense of journey. Also, the delicate intimacy in Byrne’s voice is matched by the subtlety in her instrumentation. It’s not groundbreaking reorganization of form, but its emotional weight cannot be underestimated.