Album Review: Tomberlin - I Don't Know Who Needs to Hear This
On the phone I pronounce it “Tom Berlin.”
I’m on the phone with my best friend on a Friday afternoon, and during our conversation, I ask if she would like me to send her a copy of the new Tomberlin album, and in asking, I pronounce it “Tom Berlin.”
And I’m not even finished asking the question before she stops me and says, “I don’t know what that is.”
“Sure you do,” I assure her. “Tom Berlin? You put one of her songs on a playlist a while ago? Her new album came out to—”
And before I can even finish saying “today,” my best friend stops me again and begins laughing. “Oh,” she tells me. “That’s not at all how I’ve been pronouncing that in my head.”
On the phone, my best friend tells me she thought the name was pronounced closer to “Tomber Lin,” with a lot less of a long emphasis on the “om,” and, like, no pause or hesitation before that last syllable.
And she’s right—it doesn’t take me all that long, after our conversation, to find a video on YouTube where Sarah Beth Tomberlin, the band, or project’s namesake, is sitting front and center, performing with two other musicians, as part of an in-studio session for Paste magazine, taped in 2018 around the time that her debut full length, At Weddings, was being reissued and given a much wider release, through Saddle Creek Records.
In the video, a voice off-screen introduces the group, and the way it is pronounced sounds closer to “Tomber Lin.”
And this would have been nearly three years ago now, which, because of what has happened to the world over the last two years, seems like several lifetimes ago, but, in 2019, in sitting down with Lana Del Rey’s opus Norman Fucking Rockwell—and in exhaustively writing about the album—specifically the lyricism and deadpanned, deeply effacing phrase turns throughout, I find that I often return to that album and the accompanying piece about it, as the first time I can remember naming, or verbalizing the notion of feeling “seen” and “attacked” by a song.
The notion itself wasn’t a new idea to me—far from it, but in the past, if I were writing about a song that made me feel some type of way, I would, perhaps, try to be a little more tactful or not as casual and self-aware in describing it—e.g saying a song really “resonated” with me “personally,” or implying how I felt but remaining somewhat ambiguous by stating I “saw parts of myself reflected” in specific lyrics. I admit I still use both expressions somewhat often, and it is perhaps because I am an extremely online individual, but I believe there is a lot more emotional weight, and more of an unspoken understanding in what you are confessing when you describe it as having made you feel seen, or attacked, or often, a combination of both within the same moment.
I started a new job recently—a little over four months after leaving the place I worked for over five years. And in the mornings now, I find there is not so much a time for what I call “silent reflection,” as there was on the 15-minute walk, before sunrise, with my old job; but before the day’s work begins—when I will need to be a lot more focused and attentive, I have found, as I am able, I can place one AirPod in, and try to listen to something—usually a podcast, sometimes an ambient or jazz record—as I ease into my morning.
On the Friday morning that Tomberlin’s second full-length, I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This…, was released, I made the mistake of listening to the album as I began my workday. And I think it occurred to me that this was, in fact, a mistake, well before the album’s first song, “Easy,” had even made it into its chorus.
It occurred to me that it was a mistake when I heard Sarah Beth Tomberlin, in a delicate voice that rises just above a whisper, sing, “You asked me not to leave you alone, so I listened ‘till you forgot your misery.”
And I had listened to all four of the advance singles released as part of the slow rollout of the album, before its arrival—and I liked them all enough (some much more than others). Still, none of those songs could prepare me for what kind of listening experience I was in for once I began I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This… from the beginning.
The kind of album that, within the first minute of the first song, had me feeling some type of way.
The kind of album that would leave me feeling seen and attacked.
And there is, of course, a bit of a compelling backstory, or at least a narrative that is worth elaborating on, to both Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s life, the surprising pace with which her profile as a singer and songwriter has risen over a relatively short amount of time.
If you have already sat down with the album, and paid attention to the lyrics of the second track, the highly personal “Born Again Runner,” then Tomberlin’s religious upbringing should be unsurprising to discover. Her father, a Baptist pastor, brought the family to Southern Illinois when she was a pre-teen—and as an extended profile that ran on Pitchfork before the album’s release indicates, Tomberlin took piano lessons and sung in the church choir, then gravitated toward the guitar, which she taught herself to play.
Her growing interest in secular art—including a Bright Eyes album she bought and hid from her parents—was discouraged as she became a teenager, and the interview with Pitchfork indicates she graduated from high school early and attended a Christian college for a year before returning home; in 2017, she relocated to Louisville, Kentucky on her own, and while enrolling in community college and working a retail job, wrote and record the songs that would eventually become her debut as Tomberlin, At Weddings, somewhat unceremoniously uploading the album onto Bandcamp, more or less uncertain what came next.
At Weddings gained momentum over time, and a year after its original release, Tomberlin signed to Saddle Creek—the label then reissued the album to a much wider audience. An appearance on late-night television eventually followed, as did, as strange as it might sound, befriending actress Busy Phillips over social media, who temporarily invited Tomberlin to live in her guest house in Los Angeles.
Near the end of 2020, Tomberlin released the five-song Projections EP—not so much a “departure” from the sound of her earlier material, but there is a concerted effort to sonically push the idea of Tomberlin, as a band, or a project, forward.
And it was the final song on Projections, her hushed, evocative cover of Owen Ashworth’s “Natural Light,” that, when it appeared on the aforementioned playlist my best friend had put together in late 2021, stopped me in my tracks. I had seen the name “Tomberlin” mentioned before—an old friend had said once, a few years ago, that she found herself listening to At Weddings a lot, and pondering, as she put it, within the context of the conversation we were having, the “stickiness” of religion—but I had never sat down with any of her music until I heard “Natural Light,” and was instantly transfixed by both the intimacy with which the song is performed and recorded, and the terrible, visceral sense of sorrow and longing she creates, seemingly with ease.
The most impressive thing about “Natural Light,” though, is how Tomberlin sings lyrics that she obviously did not write1, but can make them, and the song her own, and make you believe the narrative, regardless of who’s it is.
And the more I think about how to write about I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This…, which I have, more than likely, made into a more difficult and intimidating thing than it needs to be, I find myself thinking about the idea of “the album,” and how an album works.
And what I mean is that, there are times, when you look at an album as a whole, and the instrumentation is not necessarily working against the lyrics. Still, one element, of the two, is more of the emphasis, or is in more control as the album unfolds itself.
And there are times when you look at an album as a whole, and the instrumentation is not necessarily working with the lyrics, but both elements are so compelling in their own right that there is no way to place more of an emphasis on one over the other—they aren’t fighting for control while the album is unfolding, but the further you sink into listening, it can become a lot to try and understand and unpack.
I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This… is an utterly flawless statement where both Tomberlin’s lyrics, and the dense, often complicated arranging, tumble together gently to create something beautiful, haunting, and devastating that barely rises above a whisper. Fragile, quiet, and intimate, Tomberlin spends a majority of the record working within the kind of musical territory that is the perfect soundtrack for late-night serious conversations with a close friend.
The feeling when you haven’t had too much to drink—but just enough; the sense of a secret you have to share with one person.
And an expression that I often use when describing an album—specifically the smaller, and perhaps, more quiet details of an album, is to refer to it as a “headphone record.” For a while, I would preface that description by saying I was remiss in using it, because I felt there was a hint of pretentiousness. I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This… is, of course, an album that can be listened to and enjoyed from your home stereo—nothing is truly lost from the experience of listening as the album fills the room you are in; however, with the amount of time I have spent with this collection of songs, many of them so sparse and hushed, the density and complex nature of the arranging is something that is exponentially more noticeable when you listen at close range—i.e. through a pair of headphones—that closeness reveals just how fascinating of an album this is.
The small details, or things that a casual listener might ignore on a first listen, are fascinating—like the unrelenting use of percussion, especially in the first few songs. The album’s smoldering and tense opening track, “Easy,” among the album’s finest moments as well as being one of the most devastating lyrically, is set to an unwavering bass drum thud and gently brushed snare. The resulting rhythm is hypnotic, and sets the stage for the lush sound of the woodwind, the ripples of synthesizers, icy plinks of the piano keys, and Tomberlin’s voice and the personal, vivid narrative she begins sharing.
Equally, if not more hypnotic, is the unrelenting and dizzying rhythm in “Tap,” one of the singles released in advance of the album. Feeling almost tribal or ceremonial in the frenetic energy it creates, “Tap” uses the bouncing of the acoustic guitar strings as an anchor, while percussive shakers and hand drumming swirl and spiral around, seeming, at times, like it is going to collapse under its own momentum, though it never does.
I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This… is also quite compelling in the way it merges both acoustic instrumentation and more organic sounds with its usage of synthesizers. Following the raw intimacy of a song like “Tap,” the album segues into “Memory,” which is structured around a throbbing electronic tone that pulsates throughout the entirety of the song while other instruments, like the piano, and eerie, distant-sounding guitars, pile on top of it. “Memory” seems like the kind of song that could build and build until it explodes, or reaches a cacophonic peak—but it turns out to be an exercise in total restraint. Like the album as a whole, it finds Tomberlin playing with the idea of tension and release—how long to hold onto the uncomfortable feelings before letting them go in a blistering moment of catharsis.
In the promotional blurb about I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This that is tucked into the fine print on Tomberlin’s Bandcamp site, she is quoted as saying the record's theme is to, “examine, hold space, make an alter for the feelings.” She does not specify which feelings she, the listener, is holding space for—perhaps all of them. Or, maybe, the ones that make us uncomfortable.
And there is, as one might anticipate, a lot of discomfort in Tomberlin’s lyrics—the unflinchingly honest depictions of herself, and her relationships with others.
“Tap the heart until I hate myself,” Tomberlin whispers in the startling opening line of “Tap,” her voice coasting just above the skittering, rollicking rhythm of the song. “Hit the square and rearrange myself. I don’t like it—what it does to me. Never makes me want to laugh or sing,” she continues in the song’s first verse. The song itself, as it continues to unfurl, is a meditation on several things, and as she described upon the “Tap”’s release as a single, scenes where she both connects, and disconnects, from herself, including social media and imposter syndrome, the lengthy walks she took through New York in early 2021 for inspiration, and the usage of “trash TV” as a means of escapism—“Stopped watching movies that make me feel,” coos at the beginning of the fifth verse. “And you said trash tv2 is the best meal. And I reply, ‘Well, none of it is real.’ You said, ‘I know, and that I think that’s ideal.’”
There is no chorus to “Tap,” and there is a playful nature to the way Tomberlin delivers some of the song’s lyrics, and the way they bounce across the music—like a rock skipped with great precision into a lake. They’re highly personal reflections, and written with enough clarity to make them the kind of ruminations anyone can identify with—“Always wondering about my health,” Tomberlin sings toward the song's conclusion. “Always wondering if I’ll go to hell. Should take some vitamins—I don’t know what to take. And I should sleep more, but I’m wide awake,” but there is also enough poetic ambiguity in other lines that heighten your imagination while you try to unpack what they might mean.
Throughout I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This, the poetic ambiguity often turns to a place of visceral longing and sadness, like in “Memory,” where Tomberlin uses turns of phrase with enormous gravity—“Memory is the silent killer,” she sings near the end, but it’s the terrible melancholy and sense of loss that she creates earlier in the song—feelings universal enough that a listener can identify, but written with enough vagueness that she plays the more personal story behind the song’s meaning close to her chest—“I’ve tasted and I’ve seen you, and still trust you won’t come. Kept your voicemail in my pocket—afraid one day it’d stop playing, and I’d never hear your voice again.”
The album, as a whole, and it should be very apparent by now, is deeply rooted in a palpable bittersweetness—simmering in intimacy and delicacy, but there are two extremely surprising moments near the end when that simmering ends up boiling over ferociously in the pleading, musically bombastic “Stoned,” and the snarling, caterwauling, distended “Happy Accidents.”
Featuring guitar work from the esoteric indie-folk artist Cass McCombs, “Happy Accidents” is by far the loudest, most aggressive song on I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This, but it isn’t so unexpected that it feels out of place in the album’s sequencing. Musically, through the torrent of electric guitars and the pummeling drum kit keeping time, it’s like one enormous deep breath, exhaled as a scream into the emotional abyss leading up to the stillness that arrives in the final two tracks.
With the change in the song’s instrumentation and tone, there is also a change in the way Tomberlin delivers her vocals—it is among the handful of places where she does indeed raise her voice to a place utterly anguished bellowing as she continues to paint the difficult portrait of the depictions of a tumultuous relationship that are found in many of the lyrics. “Do you just talk to me when you’re lonely and bored,” she asks early in the song. “Don’t you act like that when you know what I feel, and don’t you tell me to stay ‘cause you know that I will.”
Then, later, in the enormous, swooning chorus—“And I wanna die when you say don’t cry. But I won’t quit—happy accident.”
Sad young women making sad sounding music for sad people (like myself) is not, like, a unique genre—but across a majority of I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This, Tomberlin can shape her own musical identity—this is in part I think due to how densely arranged the songs are; regardless, as a listener, I was not able to stop myself from hearing slight similarities from other artists operating within the scope of the genre of “sad indie-folk.” Tomberlin’s voice—a little earthy and a little husky, or lower in timbre, is pleasantly reminiscent of the nomadic, enigmatic folk singer Julie Byrne, and the explosive, anthemic power of “Stoned,” as well as the range Tomberlin’s voice soars to, called to mind the complexities of Punisher-era Phoebe Bridgers.
And during my initial listen—more half listening, half focusing on work, the morning of I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This’ release, I think that, once I began recognizing the weight that was packed into the first song, I had an idea of what kind of album I was in for, but as “Easy” came to a sorrowful conclusion. The gentle, twangy, folksy “Born Again Runner” began, it was when I heard the line, and Tomberlin’s emphasis, on the line, “I know I’m not Jesus, but Jesus, I’m trying to be enough,” that I came to a stop, letting that lyric wash over me, and thought, “Oh. This is this kind of an album.”
Trying to unpack whatever familial baggage you might be carrying around is hard enough to do on your own, but unpacking that familial baggage and setting it to music takes a kind of fearlessness and honesty I cannot fathom.
As detailed in the profile on Pitchfork, “Born Again Runner” is not only about the complicated history between Tomberlin, her parents, and the way she was brought up; it is about the letter she wrote to them where she came out as queer—“Wrote you a letter trying hard to describe myself,” she sings in the middle of the song. “You never seemed to see me. You always saw someone else that I was trying to be to get you to love me.”
That effacing assessment of her childhood self continues in the verse that immediately follows—“You said when I was a kid I was always running away from a hug or some kind of loving—and hey, maybe you were right; and hey, maybe I still might.”
Across the entire album, Tomberlin’s way with words is incredibly vivid in the portraits they paint—most often of a tumultuous romantic relationship, but just how descriptive she is in the narrative crafted through the tension and frustrations with her family’s beliefs—specifically those of her father. “I’m not the one yelling but you say I’m too emotional,” she confesses early in the song. “Walk away kicking myself—should I save my tears for someone else?” And these descriptions, set against a steady, delicately shuffled snare drum rhythm, mournful pedal steel, and the faintest of banjo string plucks, lead up to that line—the line. The one that I gasped when I heard it through my headphones.
The kind of lyric that makes you long for the days of AOL Instant Messenger “Away Messages.”
I know I’m not Jesus, but Jesus, I’m trying to be enough.
Described as an album that will make space for “the feelings,” whichever they might be, the difficult feelings that linger in the wake of not so much a “break up,” but a relationship that has fractured severely, are present in two of I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This’ finest songs, both of which are sequenced on the album’s first side.
“Easy,” the album’s absolutely stunning opening track sets the tone for the rest of the songs that will follow in terms of its arranging—musically, there is nothing else like it, but the way it is produced, and how it does so much with so few instruments is incredible. Lyrically, there is no escaping just how personal, and therefore, possibly uncomfortable, Tomberlin will be in her writing.
The tension in the relationship she’s depicted is palpable within the first minute of the song, but one of the causes of that tension is intelligently revealed after the chorus—“Didn’t hear from you this weekend, and I know what that means. You don’t know how you feel about her,” Tomberlin confesses. “But I know it hurts me—and when you say you saw her, I ask you how she’s been. And you don’t wanna talk about it, and I wanna let you win.” And this scene of emotional discourse, unfolding awkwardly between two people, is underscored by chilling, dissonant stabs at the piano, atmospheric synthesizer buzzes and tones, and the ever undulating pattern of percussive elements—the tension between both the characters in this narrative, and the music, on the verge of an explosive release that never comes.
Similar to how having any kind of understanding of Tomberlin’s childhood and teenage years under the shadow of a conservative family and an even stricter religion is helpful (but not necessary) to appreciate a song like “Born Again Runner,” knowing her exodus from the south to the west coast is helpful, but again, not necessary to the enjoyment of “Unsaid,” which seems like it picks up with the volatile relationship implied in “Easy,” but here, it is less about the difficult conversations we don’t want to have with someone, and more about the terrible longing that begins to fill the spaces between us when we are unable to be honest.
“Left my home and a best friend—the places I could hide, for a city of six-lane highways and lots of traffic lights” Tomberlin begins over a jittery, National-esque rhythm of plucked and muted electric guitar strings, with a surge of woodwind drones coursing underneath. “But I’m trying to grow roots here, keep my feet on the ground…well, it’s only been a few months, and I can’t tell the difference,” she continues. “Was I happy in the quiet? All the open-handed distance…”
But it is what serves as the chorus to “Unsaid,” which is among the most impactful, and challenging to hear, on I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This—the kind of lyrics in a song that make me feel some type of way.
The kind of portrayal that makes me feel seen and attacked.
“If I don’t call you up, then I don’t have to feel down,” Tomberlin sings, letting her voice naturally rise into a range that reaches both a startling honesty and fragility. “And if I don’t say I miss you, then you never have to be around. If I don’t say I love you, then you don’t have to love me. See how simple the unsaid keeps things?”
Looking at I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This from both an analytical and structure lens, arguably the album comes to an end shortly after the ferocious double shot of “Stoned,” and “Happy Accident,” with the brief, spectral, and pleading “Possessed,” which arrives as both a gentle lullaby, and an epilogue full of uncertainty. “Won’t you cover my eyes?,” Tomberlin sings over the strum of an acoustic guitar. “I don’t know who to be. I don’t know who to see. Something’s always possessed me.”
Then, the song becomes an invitation to both the listener and an unnamed individual—“Won’t you please sit with me as I figure it out?,” she asks. “I have nothing but a head full of doubt.”
And there is no actual resolution found in many of the narratives that make up I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This—the dynamic with her family still fraught with tension, and the confessions of love to the antagonist in “Unsaid” and “Easy” still kept secret, further creating emotional distance. There is, however, resolve in the album’s titular (and final) track—a self-aware, reflective afterword.
Released as the first single from the album, before the album itself was even announced, the title track (abbreviated “IDKWNTHT”) is a delicate, folksy call and response between Tomberlin and Felix Walworth, a multi-instrumentalist who is credited as contributing bass, guitar, piano, and drums to the album.
In holding space, or making an alter for “the feelings,” “I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This” is about accepting those feelings—regardless of how uncomfortable they may be to sit within. “Sometimes it’s good to sing your feelings,” Tomberlin explains in the song's first verse. “And every time I open my mouth hope something halfway helpful falls out.”
“And on the phone, I said it clear, ‘How could I ask you, dear, to hold the feelings I don’t want to,’” she continues as the song slowly and quietly unfolds. “…But here is one thing I am learning—everyone’s heart burns for something. And really, what I wanted to be is everything you weren’t for me.”
And not that I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This is a “hopeless” album—it is just emotionally cumbersome, but the titular track is the album’s most hopeful moment. “This song is simple, but it ain’t easy to sing it like it is—believe me,” Tomberlin assures before adding, “These days, we learn to hold ourselves.”
About two months into the pandemic, in the late spring of 2020, I officially ghosted the therapist I had been working with, on and off, for 12 years or so, and began working with someone else, and at some point, during our conversations, she encouraged me, as she does with a lot of her clients, to “sit in the discomfort.”
It isn’t easy—both acknowledging and then spending time within uncomfortable or difficult feelings, but over time, I have come to understand that this act is more beneficial than avoiding those uncomfortable feelings altogether, or trying (and often failing) to outrun them.
Before the album even begins, Sarah Beth Tomberlin has explained to the listener that she wants you, and me, to build an altar for “the feelings,” and to hold space for them—whatever they might be. That space is the acknowledgment and the time spent in those potentially uncomfortable, or difficult feelings, and the hushed resolve of this album is the understanding that, even within those potentially uncomfortable or difficult feelings, in holding space for them, you have to hold space for yourself as well.
The thing about naming an album like this “I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This” is, in fact, that everyone needs to hear this. This is a beautiful album about difficult things—and regardless of if Tomberlin’s lyricism made you feel seen or attacked, or if you saw “reflections” of yourself in it, or if the themes “resonated” with you personally, it is a breathtaking, often complex statement on the challenges of navigating the current human condition.
1- There’s a lyric in the song, “What if we’d had the kid? I guess he’d be 15,” which is a giveaway that Sarah Beth Tomberlin did not write this song since she is not even out of her 20s. It also seems worth mentioning the darkness within“the” in “the kid.” In confirming the lyrics for the song from Owen Ashworth’s 2009 Casiotone For The Painfully Alone album VS Children, somebody added the annotation on Genius stating, for the longest time, they thought it was “had a kid,” which is a statement full of a kind of wistfulness for what could have been but never was because of the dissolution of a relationship. But the lyrics, “had the kid,” imply the termination of a teenage pregnancy, which adds a lot of gravity to an already weighty, remorseful song.
2- This is just a quick aside to say I am glad that I am not the only person who uses this term. I, famously, do not watch much television, but my wife often does as a means of escapism—the very kind this song is detailing, actually, and she watches a lot of what we both have described as “garbage t.v.”