[7 June 2010]
Over the course of four albums—the first released when she was only 16—Canadian-born, Virginia resident Devon Sproule has evolved a musical style that sets often quirky self-written songs to a mixture of folk, vintage jazz, and country styles. Her use of vivid imagery and digressive narrative styles occasionally calls to mind the work of her forebear Joni Mitchell and her contemporary Joanna Newsom. Sproule has built up a solid following outside of the USA, especially in the UK, where she recorded her fifth album, Don’t Hurry for Heaven!, for the Coventry-based Tin Angel label. The album was released in May 2009 to general acclaim and is now getting a North American release via the Vancouver-based Black Hen Music. It’s a worthy sequel to 2007’s well-received Keep Your Silver Shined, maintaining that album’s ability to flesh out Sproule’s songs with sympathetic band arrangements.
A sense of space pervades the lyrics of these songs, many of which describe the distances across which memory and imagination operate. A longing for home and the domestic is immediately evident in album opener “Ain’t That the Way”. It’s a song about the consequences of getting what you thought you wanted, here represented by the life of the touring musician. “I asked God for a good job”, sings Sproule, “He put me on a plane”. Focusing on the distance from home, family, and friends that comes in the wake of touring, she resorts to a fetishization of the poetics of domestic space—“The washing on a wire / Potatoes in a tire”, and “Liquor in your cupboard / Water on the stove”. The space of memory is highlighted in the closing verse when, singing in counterpoint with guest vocalist Jesse Winchester, Sproule refers to being “here in the distance / Here in the miss you”.
There’s an obvious coziness here, made even more noticeable when one knows that Sproule’s husband Paul Curreri is producing the album and contributing guitar. A lyric which, on paper, reads as a reflection on loneliness and homesickness, is given an arrangement full of warm intimacy. Sproule sounds happy and homely, and the end result is not altogether unlike the “Valentine duets” that she and Curreri offer up on the latter’s website. But where the coziness of those pieces is ultimately unchallenging, there is just enough strangeness and quirkiness to the whimsy on offer here to keep the less nuptially sympathetic satisfied.
One of the ways this strangeness is made manifest is in the space given to the music and to the vocalizing of the lyrics. Space, in Sproule’s work, is not only something to be represented in words, but also a quality to be inserted into the sonic text. A New York Times critic once wrote of Nina Simone that she had an uncanny ability to highlight the “unexpected crannies” of familiar songs, and there is something of this to Sproule’s work too, even if her songs are, for the most part, familial rather than familiar. (Sproule, appropriately enough, recorded a version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” on her album Upstate Songs; Simone’s version was a fine example of her ability to reorganize a song’s spatiality.)
The lyric to “Julie” is written as a straightforward, slightly clipped short story, its lines focusing on narrative development rather than rhyme or obvious poetics. Sproule sings the story in a way that brings the musicality of the phrases alive, managing to make “computer lab” and “pre-med” seem to rhyme. The musicality of the phrasing and the plink of Curreri’s ghostly piano help to deliver a sense of haunting melancholy to this ode to two girls who were “both shy and a little strange”. The sense of loss and regret is completed by Sproule’s moving assertion, delivered twice during the song, that “all along, something was wrong”. This not-quite-rightness infects the other instrumentation, too. Here, as throughout the album, the music’s spatiality presents an alternately spiky and smooth response to Sproule’s deliberately “off” phrasing. At times, the effect is a little like that of the work of Howe Gelb and Giant Sand; there are also hints, in the drum sound and the desert-crisp instrumental textures, of Gelb’s former bandmates Calexico.
Intimacy and coziness further assert themselves as the driving aesthetics in Sproule’s work through her tendency to address certain songs to particular people with whom the listener cannot immediately identify. If, in “Julie”, there is enough contextual information given to make it believable that the singer is explaining a situation to an audience, there is no such strategy employed in “You Need a Maria”. This song, addressed to a guy called Kenny, comes over as a letter written to someone who will recognize himself as its protagonist, but from whom the rest of us are shielded. Paying attention to its lyric is rather like reading an entry in someone’s private journal. Sproule’s melody and vocal allow for the only contextualization the song will get in its recorded form, effectively making public a private confidence. As such, the song attains the quality of poetry, which has no need of context to project its magic. There is another claim to homely intimacy here, as the poetry of the domestic space is folded into that of the poetic text.
The album’s title track is Sproule’s most obvious gesture towards country music and brings BJ Cole’s pedal steel (which features on much of the album) to the fore, while also weaving banjo (Curreri again) into the mix. As in many a classic country song, use is made of extended metaphors; having compared the curves of a guitar to those of a woman, Sproule asserts, “If you love me even half as much as your old Martin / You should be practicing on me just about every day”. Overall, though, Sproule’s music is better described as “Southern” rather than “country”. Like Lucinda Williams, an artist Sproule admires and has toured with, there is sense of the sultry, heat-baked South, the hyperreal South of True Blood and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road occasionally invading the down-home domesticity. Sproule is at her most Williams-like on the sonic road movie “Good to Get Out”, which sports some appropriately driving 12-string strums and electric guitar licks from Curreri. But, in a typically Sproulian twist of self-referentiality, the song is ultimately offered up as an antidote to sitting around moping: “The Paul on tour, the Dev at home / Going on about her man ‘til her man gets home”. Even in a song about the open road—the freest space in the mythology of American popular culture—space is tamed into place by the assertion of the domestic. The song is further domesticated and de-mythologized by Sproule’s posting of a home-made, UK-shot movie as its “video” on YouTube. The fact that Don’t Hurry for Heaven was mostly recorded in the UK adds to the sense of nostalgia and no doubt contributes to its sonic disquiet.
There are two covers towards the end of the album. The first is a take on “Bowling Green”, a track by Coventry band Don’t Move!, whose Curreri-produced debut album was released by Tin Angel in 2009. The second, perhaps more surprising, is a version of Black Uhuru’s “Sponji Reggae”, on which Curreri shares the vocals and adds spiky electric guitar. Sproule then closes the album with a solo number, “A Picture of Us in the Garden”. It begins with the line “Won’t you give us a trim, Maria?” and, due to the sense of intimacy pervading the album, the listener is immediately referred back to the earlier “You Need a Maria”. Here is another song about the pleasures and pains of friendship and love, in which significant others and their attributes are reflected on—Megan’s tattoo, Danele\‘s unspecified illness, Maria’s homeliness. “I can’t live any place but Virginia”, sings Sproule, offering a neat symmetry to the homeward-looking opening song, and, as in that track, “A Picture of Us in the Garden” reflects on the incompatibility of work and family: “Honey, how are we ever supposed to have us a family / When the business won’t give us a buck?”
Don’t Hurry for Heaven reasserts Sproule’s ability to make original and intriguing art from what she finds around her, using quirky arrangements to elevate the everyday and to invite passersby into a world of intimacy that, as with Joe Brainard’s wonderful book I Remember, attains its universality precisely through its conveyance of the particular, the telling detail. This is what rescues these songs from accusations of cloying sentimentality. Witnessing Sproule’s sonic scrapbook, we are forced to recognize that we too have felt this way, and have stored similar impressions of the world around us.