Album Review: Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness

Early in 2012, I fell very deep into the seemingly never ending abyss of cassette labels. It started, innocently enough, with small orders from Bridgetown Records; then within a month or so, I started branching out. There was Lillerne Tapes, Hi Shadow Records, and then Solid Melts—an outfit that released the startlingly evocative and sparse debut EP from the singer/songwriter Julie Byrne—You Would Love it Here.

Byrne followed that EP with second later in the year, and re-issued all the songs from both efforts at the start of 2014 on what served as her debut full length, Rooms With Walls. Now, after two years of relative silence, Byrne has returned in full form with her second LP, Not Even Happiness, a fragile, reflective meditation on her nomadic lifestyle as a musician.

Listeners familiar with Byrne’s previous work will note what a huge forward stride Not Even Happiness is for her—not just as songwriter and performer, but even right down to the cover art. On her cassette EPs, no photographs of her were present, adding to the air of mystery around them. She adorned the cover of Rooms With Walls, scratching her head, looking very fresh faced, a little sleepy, all while sporting a rather loud, oversized shirt.

Here, however, she’s matured. Captured in black and white, you can see Byrne growing more confident in herself as both an adult woman as well as a singer and songwriter.

What made Byrne’s early work so fascinating to listen to was just how spectral and how haunted it was. Both early EPs were recorded live in a DIY performance space she also happened to be living in at the time; the recordings were rough, and there was a seriousness and an urgency within those songs.

As Byrne has continued to grow, she has not forsaken the skeletal arrangements she favored in the past—a bulk of Not Even Happiness is based around gently plucked and strummed acoustic guitar, basked in a slight reverb. However, the album incorporates additional instrumentation throughout, including lush, sweeping strings on the first single “Natural Blue,” as well as on “Follow My Voice.” Later, she concludes the album with the ponderous, self-aware “I Live Now as A Singer,” a song that boasts warm, vintage sounding synthesizer—all of which works to provide extra depth to each song.

Originally from Buffalo, NY, Byrne has made her adult life a transient one. She’s spent time in Chicago and New Orleans; she’s worked as a park ranger. She can only stay in one place for so long before it’s time to pack it all up and move on. Not Even Happiness is a response to this lifestyle. Not so much “road weary,” the content of the album is akin to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s inward turned 2016 effort, The Things That We Are Made Of, as Byrne dissects her wanderlust and experiences as best she can through somber, gorgeous arrangements and through her otherworldly, smoldering voice.

I’ve got a complicated soul,” she sings on the album’s opening track, “Follow My Voice.” “To me, this city’s hell but I know you call it home. I was made for the green—was made to be alone,” Byrne continues, not wasting any time delving into the crux of the album, adding, “I’ve been called heartbreaker, for doing justice to my own.”

I cross the country and I carry no key,” she sings on the following track, “Sleepwalker.” “Life is short as a breath half taken,” she muses later in the album’s second half, on the driving “Morning Dove.”

The last line in the album, on “I Live Now as A Singer,” is a question, and throughout Not Even Happiness, it’s clear that there is no real resolution for Byrne as she reflects on where she has been and where she is going.

Clocking in at a brief half-hour and change, Byrne doesn’t overstay her welcome with Not Even Happiness; it’s a short, quiet, and beautiful statement that fades out into the ether so suddenly that in an effort to give the listener the opportunity to sit and ruminate on the ideas presented.

Bryne is young-ish; for some reason, I get the impression that we are close in age, but she is wise beyond her years, has lived a number of lives up until now, and she’ll continue to live more—she makes that clear on Not Even Happiness, a snapshot of where she is right now as both a person and performer, and what has brought her up to this point.

Not Even Happiness is out on Jan. 27th on vinyl and compact disc via Ba Da Bing, and right now as a digital download.