Album Review: Julie Byrne, ‘The Greater Wings’

    To love, sometimes, is to feel weightless and ungrounded. ‘Summer Glass’, the centerpiece of Julie Byrne’s astonishing third album, begins with arpeggiated synths that shimmer off into the horizon and, in the absence of her signature fingerpicked guitar, conjure a soaring, unfamiliar intimacy. Her spectral voice is suspended in the air: “I can’t say if it was devotion/ I just wanted to feel the sun on my skin.” But rather than wander aimlessly in solitude, retracing pieces of herself, the song quickly turns to another and brims with the possibility of belonging. “I, too, have lingered on in empty rooms,” she confesses, laying out a full story in the span of a breath – “Desire, laughter, blur, ache, abandon” – then asks: “Are we gonna bring this to fruition?” The wave of unbridled beauty and uncertainty is crystallized in the moment, a home she only provides glimpses of and knows cannot last forever; the “we” becomes “I” again. When she floats back down, it is with a renewed sense of clarity. “I want to feel whole enough to risk again,” she sings.

    It is through this insistent willingness to risk, her commitment to a vision both shared and solitary, that The Greater Wings was able to materialize. Byrne began working on the follow-up to 2017’s Not Even Happiness in the fall of 2020, collaborating with her longtime creative partner Eric Littmann on sessions that extended through the spring of 2021. In June of 2021, Littmann died suddenly at age 31. In the wake of his loss, the album was shelved for six months, before it was completed in early 2022 with producer Alex Somers. The weight of grief accumulates on the opening title track, which manages to radiate warmth and find meaning by honouring Littmann’s memory. “It is not what is seen/ But what is known forever,” she offers, and nearly every track that follows comes alive with the desire to imbue the ordinary with the cosmic.

    But forever isn’t always the same, and what can be life-affirming for so long can feel twice as devastating once it changes shape. ‘Portrait of a Clear Day’ is almost peaceful in its melancholy, loss wrapped and stretching out in the glow of nostalgia: “Timeless and wide in the middle of the night/ Am I just waiting for you all over again?” On ‘Moonless’, Byrne sings of the small apartment on the 8th floor of an old hotel where she and Littman would record once the sun came down: “I found it there in the room with you/ Whatever eternity is.” It’s a breakup song, the first Byrne has ever written on piano – with Littman – and as she’s faced with “what eternity becomes,” Jake Falby’s string arrangement and Marilu Donovan’s harp recede before swelling again for her to proclaim, “I’m not waiting for your love.” Yet it doesn’t feel like an answer so much as another shot at the question that pervades so much of the album: What do you do, then, when it’s still there? Who are you without its old habits, the stories you cannot braid together? Where do you go?

    It’s in the air, but Byrne continues to move by harnessing space for vulnerability, firm in her ability to hold contradictions. “There are times I’m in touch with who I truly want to be,” she admits on the gorgeous ‘Flare’, even if it can never feel like a lasting embrace. “There is no place I can remain,” she goes on to lament, but knows better than to try and outrun grief. Her voice becomes so hushed it almost fades completely when she sings, “Yet I need a love that will,” but quickly rises back up, addressing the listener as much as herself: “Stay with me.” She treats both the inanimate and human subjects of her songwriting with a divine sensitivity, seeking a connectedness that can turn a personal plea into a communal meditation. When it manifests – as in ‘Flare’, sonically not one of the most expansive tracks on the album – it serves as proof that music doesn’t need to carry us very far, so long as it simply does.

    Even more startling is ‘Conversation Is a Flowstate’, a song about a relationship in which Byrne felt degraded; the title memorializes what Littman said to her, words that gave her enough strength to confront the situation through song and reach deep into herself. “Permission to grieve, it’s alright/ Healing can be heartbreaking, it’s alright,” she sings, chest heaving. “I am by your side.” It now, of course, resonates on a much wider scale, echoing as a reminder that frees experiences of longing and partnership from the loneliness of a past moment, breathless and beautiful and outstretched as it may be. By the end of the record, Byrne can only arrive at the greatest revelations with an “I guess,” but her truth still, for once, seems to contain a whole universe: alive, timeless, and new.

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    To love, sometimes, is to feel weightless and ungrounded. 'Summer Glass', the centerpiece of Julie Byrne's astonishing third album, begins with arpeggiated synths that shimmer off into the horizon and, in the absence of her signature fingerpicked guitar, conjure a soaring, unfamiliar intimacy. Her...Album Review: Julie Byrne, 'The Greater Wings'