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Julie Byrne
The Greater Wings Jonathan Wright , July 10th, 2023 08:12

Life goes on. Julie Byrne’s reflections on love and loss are breathtaking and beautiful, finds Jonathan Wright

Every year now brings a steady stream of albums allying traditional instrumentation and songwriting craft to smoky, electronica-enhanced soundscapes. At the most commercially successful end of a carefully cultivated field, think of the Taylor Swift-National-Bon Iver nexus. The sheer number of these releases serves to highlight how the ‘folktronica’ genre, with its surface prettiness, is prone to becoming dinner-party beige unless its practitioners have a keen understanding of musical dynamics and a willingness to take risks.

Julie Byrne possesses these latter qualities in abundance. Her third album displays a fearless progression from her previous work, a leap forward linked to tragedy in Byrne’s own life. In June 2021, after she had already begun work on The Greater Wings, Byrne’s producer, partner and collaborator, Eric Littmann, died.

Byrne would not recommence work until 2022 when, now working with producer Alex Somers, she completed an album that’s suffused with grief yet never constrained by it. From the off, as Byrne sings on the title track of feeling “the lilt of the planet, panorama of the valley” and living through “not ordinary moments”, there’s a sense you’re in the company of someone determined to forge ahead while simultaneously acknowledging the urgent, heightened perception of life that accompanies trauma.

One way to view the song’s placement is as a fixed point to return to as the album ebbs and flows, its creator travelling between past and unfolding present. More generally, it’s fascinating to consider the role of time here. There are songs that date from 2018 and the album’s genesis encompassed the days-blurring weirdness of the pandemic.

Any project that takes so long to complete must inevitably morph and change and all too often this results in an original vision slipping away – or the limitations of that vision being exposed. In contrast, Byrne has used the time to develop her work, layering strings (arranged by Jake Falby) and synths over her own delicate guitar-picking.

At moments, Byrne is rhapsodic, her vocals soaring above the fluttering electronics of ‘Summer Glass’. Later, she stares down the darkness, as on the deceptively gentle ‘Lightning Comes Up From The Ground’ or on closer ‘Death Is The Diamond’ where she sings of how “if need be, I would carry your death wish / Back into the arms of this rare life”. Except, tragically, it’s too late, leaving Byrne no choice but to take flight into the always uncertain future.