[24 June 2013]
The gorgeously intimate new Alela Diane album is difficult to classify. Her unadorned voice takes center stage to sparse acoustic instrumental arrangements. Is this country folk or torch song jazz, adult contemporary or art song? The answer doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that this is truly a marvelous creation. The record’s only failing is that it clocks in at a mere 33 minutes in length. It leaves one gasping for more.
Diane works with a palette of primary colors; musically with simple melodies and unaffected vocals, as well as lyrically. Not only does she sing of “yellow curtains”, “red velvet seats”, “Colorado blue”, and such, she makes straightforward statements like “being one foot out the door” and “I woke up drunk on that basement floor” that say exactly what she means and implies so much more. Of course, this is what one would expect from an album that presciently begins, “I said what I needed to say, I guess.” Even before she gets to the second line, Diane tells us she’s said it all already. She’s laconic as well as suggestively literate.
Diane’s Hemingwayesque vocabulary lets you know the vulnerability of her narrators without having to spell out the emotions. And like Hemingway, Diane also sings about whiskey and having too much to drink. Alcohol frees her characters to feel—good and bad—about their relationships. Mostly, they feel lost and overwhelmed. “Some things are best if kept in darkness,” she sings, and notes that one only tells fibs when awake. Sleep and alcohol keep one honest, and honesty is a virtue. It’s our conscious behaviors and motivations that are not to be trusted.
The overall effect of plain language and unembellished vocals reifies Diane’s sincerity. Diane went through a recent divorce and it is easy to see these songs as self-reflective, but who knows or cares if this is true. The music here stands apart from her biography. One does not need to confirm the veracity of her feelings or language as much as believe in Diane’s performance. She makes the narrative heartfelt through her presentation. The stories she delivers, the details she provides, and the manner in which Diane carries it off seduces the listener into empathy. The pain itself comes off as convincingly real, and more importantly, so does her resolution to move forward.
After all, this album is entitled About Farewell. Diane acknowledges what’s been left behind on songs like the wistful “Before the Leaving” and the gorgeous “Lost Land”, but she’s looking ahead. The title song in particular is more than a song about goodbye. The narrator knows not to look back. Instead, she describes the past as the foundation for what is next. She needs to come out of the shadows to grow.
But perhaps this description over intellectualizes what happens when love grows cold, dies, and the rest of life continues on. Diane’s portrayal of how this plays out over the course of the album is more poetic than a mere report or explanation of this phenomenon. While this may not be a concept album per se, the songs do run together along this theme. Her account of lost love dispassionately conveys how the hues of emotions color the way we see ourselves and others. Diane’s musical ability to expose and interpret works like those optical illusions with which we are familiar with yet still have the ability to make us do a double take. Is that a woman with a hat or a lady looking in a mirror? No, it’s just Diane drawing us in to appreciate the big picture.