After and absence of nearly five years, Tanya Donelly has returned with her most assured sounding record to date, Beautysleep. In the years since her solo debut Lovesongs for Underdogs, and that records subsequent tour, she has parted ways with her old label Reprise. She also gave birth to her daughter with husband/co-songwriter Dean Fisher in 1998. The plan was to have the record out around the time of their daughter’s birth, and to start a tour soon after. Instead, they spent the next two years raising their child. The new album was recorded in spurts over these last five years, but the influence of having a child is in evidence all over it. Whether singing about it directly (“Now I sit with my babe at my breast / I was never this good at my best / Never higher” from “The Night You Saved My Life”), or indirectly (“I’m not finished yet / I’m under construction” from “The Storm”), Donelly acknowledges that in becoming a mother that she herself has grown, and is still evolving.
The first sound heard on Beautysleep is a heartbeat, on the ethereal opening track “Life Is But a Dream”. This is a fitting opener for the album, which traverses the dreamscapes life, reality and love. There is a real spirituality here, and even with all its talk of dreams and sleep, seems to be more about a real reawakening of the soul, not just waking up. This new record has more in common with the first release, Star from Donelly’s previous group, Belly, than with her first solo effort. It shares much of the same playfulness and sound textures that Star had, and less of the power-pop of Underdogs. This is not to say that there aren’t any of her last albums’ upbeat pop-rock songs. “The Night You Saved My Life”, “Wrap-Around Skirt” and “The Wave” all still have that trademark soft/loud combination, with quiet acoustic guitar or keyboards juxtaposed with loud electric guitar. But what sets Beautysleep apart from any of her previous records is that her voice is front and center, and stronger than ever.
As a singer, Tanya Donelly has always had a breathy, delicate voice that leant a whimsical characteristic to her performance, no matter what she was singing about. This endearing quality is still in evidence, but her voice is so much more assured on this outing, much more controlled. There are moments in “The Storm” where her voice teeters on the brink of collapse, but never falters. Donelly’s voice holds on in the way that Thom Yorke sometimes sounds like he is about to expire while holding an impossible note, then moves it up a step. Her voice is still ethereal at times, plaintive at others, but now sings either way with a confidence and strength not heard before. She has proved to be a powerhouse live, and these recordings captures that spirit. The singer also uses her voice as another instrument, often soaring above the melodies or accompanying herself. On “Moonbeam Monkey”, her vocals contrast with the deep baritone of the late Morphine singer Mark Sandman for an almost spooky, atmospheric effect. The last vocal strains of the disc’s hidden track “Head for Math” are downright haunting.
Tanya Donelly is one of a select few to survive through styles, tastes and time and still sound fresh. When she sings “Time to seek you own level baby” on “Another Moment”, she could easily be speaking of herself, and where her career has taken her. No longer in the spotlight of Belly, and shrugging off the pressure of being an indie-rock torchbearer (on her own terms), Donelly has been allowed to be herself. Someone with this much talent, be it her voice or songcraft, deserves a much larger audience, but the feeling is that she is happy with the one she has. It’s exciting to witness an artist grow and evolve, and also to see what she does next.