Alela Diane might sound at first like a lot of female singer-songwriters you’ve heard. She gently plays an acoustic guitar behind her lilting voice. And, if you happened to hear To Be Still in the background at someone’s apartment, or half-hear it over the faint sound system at a small restaurant, you might even think you’ve heard it before.
But To Be Still will draw you in if you let it, if you follow the title’s suggestion and just sit and listen. These songs have small, almost invisible hooks, but with a strong grip once they’ve got you. Her folk music—and yes this is folk, not folk-pop or any other kind of insincere hybrid—can range from the threadbare pluck of “Age Old Blues” to the twangy expanse of the title track. And all the places she takes us in between those, all the memories she mines, are evocative and heartfelt. These are the songs of someone looking back, not in muddy wonder, but in clear-eyed retrospect, at times clouded only slightly by regret.
What makes Diane’s songs so distinct, and puts her above the singer-songwriter fray, is the sheer effortlessness of her melodies. They sound like they could have just tumbled out of her when the recording started. Often, like on the outstanding “Dry Grass & Shadows”, Diane starts a verse with a simple controlled line, and then the second half of the verse unravels into something more emotive and honest. “Oh, I’d like to look at your teeth all lined up in perfect rows”, she pines as the words come loose, and a picture of both a person and a place in Diane’s past starts to take shape. As she starts to mesh land imagery with that picture of a mouth, and closes the phrase with “and when you laugh all the star thistles stumble out”, you can hear her tapping into an old familiar feeling. She’s transporting herself as much as us back into a time in her past, one that was good but is now, for reasons big and small, good and bad, over.
And much of To Be Still concerns itself with a past, a time long gone, what people did with it, and the consequences of those actions. The soft but uptempo title track, laced with pedal steel and bouncy finger-picked guitar, works a little more in the moment, since rather than looking back, Diane’s past has come to her in the form of, well, someone coming back to see her. And while she is hopeful and sings about moving to the mountains of California, she knows that just because someone comes back doesn’t mean they’ve changed. Her voice cracks once or twice with reticence, but mostly she sounds full-blooded and intent on waiting. “I won’t strike my feet”, she declares, “in whatever dirt you’re tracking”. And it is this tension, between the yearning to go back and the knowledge that you can’t, that drives To Be Still, and keeps its pastoral folk from sounding too slack.
The album rarely falters. “My Brambles”, for example, starts off a little too simply and feels like just another downtempo acoustic number. But Diane always does something to keep the recording from repeating itself, and the moments that might make you antsy are few and brief. From the sinister drumming behind “The Ocean” to the sun-drenched haze of “Tatted Lace” and the deceptively simple but effective closer, “Lady Divine”, this album succeeds not in wild genre-hopping, but in fulfilling Diane’s clear vision of what the disc should be. It is a collection of beautiful songs with an incomplete but compelling arc.
There’s something, some crisis, that separates the person singing from these recollections of the past. But we don’t get that crisis on To Be Still. Instead, we get detailed and aching pictures of Diane on either side of it, and we see her slowly pulling away from the memories. Slowly turning around and moving on. “Those songs whistled through white teeth still scuff the days”, she sings on “Lady Divine”, coming back to the idea of perfect teeth and the tangled things hidden behind them. Alela Diane isn’t turned all the way around looking back as she sings this one. She’s just peeking over her shoulder, getting one last look, and shedding the past, as much as any of us can. To Be Still is beautiful and subtly splintered and cathartic in an honestly incomplete way. And it is, finally, that rare kind of album: one worth getting close to.
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