When her debut, Rooms With Walls & Windows, was released in 2014, psych-folk singer/songwriter Julie Byrne quietly established herself as a powerful and personal storyteller, a woman whose heavy-hearted reflections often pushed emotional boundaries to vividly they recaptured transient memories that could otherwise be easily lost. Byrne’s musical takes on the hardships of love, the crossroads of change, and the uncertainty of decision-making were already honed and poignant, even then.
Not Even Happiness, her follow-up, finds Byrne settled into a life in Brooklyn after years spent criss-crossing the country—Buffalo, Chicago, Seattle—and reflecting on the unresolved narratives that arose through years of transient living. While she seems to be tentatively embracing homesteading at the moment, the sweeping ambient soundscapes and lush, fingerpicked melodies of Not Even Happiness are an able device for working out the tension between her new stability and the piece of her spirit that still longs for the constant movement, could’ve-been loves, and starry roadside nights she’s left behind.
In “Follow My Voice”, Byrne’s guitar thrums gently, but her low-range vocals are twisted by a lyrical love-hate relationship with a former home. “Melting Grid” is a wistful, harmonica-driven folk song in which Byrne reflects on the all-consuming loneliness of a life without roots. With strings weeping over mesmeric chord progressions, obvious standout “Natural Blue” is an ode to the fantasy of infinite freedom. When Byrne croons the words “When I first saw you/ The sky, it was such a natural blue,” it’s as if she’s fixing a mantra for herself to ensure she never forgets the strong connections between her emotional life and the natural world.
In album closer “I Live Now As A Singer,” Byrne asks herself, “Tell me what it’s like to be here now.” Her battles with her restless heart against the strange appeal of stability resonates in a world where even the best-laid plans can be disrupted at a moment’s notice. Not Even Happiness’ gorgeous production and arrangements are just spare enough not to crowd out her earnest honesty.