Julie Byrne – The Greater Wings

A stunning experience, shrouding loss in beauty...

In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Sea Of Tranquility, a glitch in reality causes several moments across time to converge into one: the green of a forest, the whoosh of a lunar airport, a violin coda dragged across centuries. The effect on characters is a hallucinatory sense of dislocation caused by inhabiting multiple emotional and physical time zones at once, a kind of cosmic jetlag. Julie Byrne’s third album, ‘The Greater Wings’, arrives similarly bound by the weight of its own past and future, fixed at two of the same looping, interlocking entry points.

The first is grief. Byrne began recording the album in the autumn of 2020, and paused it after her creative partner Eric Littmann died in June the following year. His instrumentation and influence can be felt across the record, not least in the arpeggiated synth that streaks through lead single ‘Summer Glass’. It’s equally impossible to hear the title track without reading it as eulogy: “Name my grief to let it sing” is explicit, but her promise that “you’re always in the band” is the line that catches in the throat, a reminder of how little is relinquished even as we speak in terms of loss.

Where previous LP ‘Not Even Happiness’ rarely strayed from her signature hushed folk meditations, ‘The Greater Wings’ ventures into new and occasionally darker sonic palettes. ‘Moonless’ is her first piano composition, for example, a break-up song that swells into an uncharacteristically bustling chorus. Notably, the closing run of tracks on the album are some of the most musically interesting she has released to date: ‘Conversation Is A Flowstate’ is essentially an ambient track with a pop vocal melody, and contains some of the album’s most dazzling lyrical imagery (“I go walk at night where Venus shines”), while ‘Hope’s Return’ is a tense, storm-rattled ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bat For Lashes record.

The second entry point is legacy. Not just in terms of the document that the recording of an album entails – music that threads its way into our lives inevitably provides a watermark of at least one life lived after the physical body has passed – nor ego, but something closer to what Byrne calls the “life and memorial” beyond. As a queer artist in particular, she speaks of chosen family and the importance of celebrating the people who truly see us. “Does my voice echo forward?” she asks on album closer ‘Death Is The Diamond’, consoled by time spent “alive if only for a speck.” The record ends and begins again, linearity fades, and gradually the demand that we must live all these overlapping lives at once starts to feel like a gift.

9/10

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Words: Matthew Neale

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