Album Review: Joan Shelley

To be quiet in this world of endless noise is sometimes a deliberate choice. Shyness isn’t always about hiding away or being afraid of life, it’s just a different way to survive. Joan Shelley has always been interested in understatement and on this eponymous record she shows there is power in musical introspection.

This is minimalism, both musically and lyrically. Like on canvas, a few brush strokes can define a whole feeling. Yet sometimes, as with abstract art, you have to contemplate meaning beyond the surface level. On this album the songs do their best to keep their secrets hidden. Shelley’s voice is beautiful but it sometimes fades away, as if it were sighing. You have to listen carefully to hear the words, the sounds of her guitar and the spaces between.

The opener We’d Be Home is so gentle it’s like the morning light quietly filling your room. There’s a real poetic quality to her work, and like a sonnet or a haiku her form is understated. Imagery of the weather and nature recur, a link to the fields where folk music originated. But these aren’t just metaphors for human relationships, she’s also concerned with the land itself, like on If the Storms Never Came. Here she sings of how a farmer needs the rain – how else do things grow? Yet there’s an undercurrent of anxiety in the pastoral dream; a fear of the destructive drought. I Got What I Wanted continues this feeling of uncertainty, using the despairing sound of a Celtic ballad.

Where I’ll Find You is about a foggy dream of love but there’s a sweet longing in the melancholy. She’s lost someone but she’s going to keep searching for shore. Go Wild is jazzier in its tone and her voice goes higher. Of course she doesn’t go wild herself, she just encourages others to. Everything here is restrained. Letting go just isn’t in her nature.

The Push and the Pull is Shelley at her most melodic – almost, dare I say, upbeat. She might not sing her love directly but she’s feeling for the edges. Pull Me up One More Time is a slow lament about the wish to have the comfort of her lover’s hand when in need. You can’t help but feel it is a futile hope. This is clear on Wild Indifference where she sings I’ve been a chaser too long. Love has become selfish and cold, but at least she has realised the truth. The final song accepts that sometimes people just need to be free.

Listened to separately Joan Shelley’s songs might sound small but on this album there is strength in their combined fragility. If you take the time to appreciate the miniature you will find much beauty to admire.

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