Complex emotions wrapped up in ballads of hard truths

Last year, Washington-based musician Phil Everum (under his stage name Mount Erie) released A Crow Looked At Me, an album about the recent death of his wife from cancer. Performed so hushed, it wrenches, yet comforts the soul.

Abysskiss, the latest solo album by Adrianne Lenker, the vocalist/songwriter of the Brooklyn quartet, Big Thief, is imbued with a similar solitude. It is made with absolute confidence.

Recorded in a week, the songs breathe as lived-in spirits, finally aired after decades of silence. They take time to surface after you have won their trust. They do not talk down or up. They do not necessarily want to socialise or make you empathise. They believe in you if you believe in yourself.

That is the metier of these unremittingly honest confessions.

The opening track, Terminal Paradise, is sung from the perspective of someone who is dying. "We both know/Let the rest of me go/See my death become a trail/And the trail leads to a flower," she sings softly, but with steely assurance.

The music is a mellifluous braiding of strumming, a peppering of piano ivories and a synth line that becomes clearer at the end.

The results soothe and elucidate. Complex emotions are wrapped up in ballads that do not sugarcoat, but instead deliver hard truths gently.

  • ALTERNATIVE FOLK/ROCK

  • ABYSSKISS

    Adrianne Lenker/ Saddle Creek/ 4 Stars

In From, she sings: "One ear to the floor/My dog barking loud/I couldn't tell for sure/Where the screaming sound/Was coming from." Lenker sets up the deceptively blissful scene of domestication, then slowly pulls the rug from underneath your feet.

Lenker yearns for hearth and restfulness and, at the same time, understands that they are also fleeting, made all the more valuable precisely because they are so.

Comparisons have been made to the late great troubadour Elliott Smith. The songs feel as if they are sung just next to your ear and the emotions can turn dark or light in a single phrase depending on subtle inflection.

Against guitar flicks, she exhorts: "Baby, you're still proud to come down/Maybe I'm still too loud to hear/All the waves ascend and disappear," she sings so matter-of-factly, you would almost miss the accusatory subtext or her self-incrimination. The vocals are suspended in an echo chamber, disembodied and alienating.

Memories are recalled sensually, if elliptically. In the title track, Abyss Kiss, she sings about "brushing horses/Manes and tails, flicking flies" and "Wilderness/Vast abyss/ Will we ever kiss?"

Amid the quotidian and routine is a glimpse of clandestine hearts connecting.

This bucolic romanticism is re-enacted in the last song, 10 Miles. Lenker sings of lovers waking up together: "To die in your arms/Your words forming again."

Everything is hunky-dory, until you realise it is all wistful thinking and they are apart.

"Jo, nothing is real/But we still have the feel/You're closing up the bar/I'm warming up the car/10 miles away," she sings over feather-light finger-picking, reaching out to the loved one through the vastness of space and time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2018, with the headline 'Complex emotions wrapped up in ballads of hard truths'. Print Edition | Subscribe