9 Feb 18
"Days gone / And days yet to come," sings Alela Diane, her voice rich and golden among bird-like flutes on "Threshold", "Today, I'm standing in the threshold again."
On Cusp, Diane is, indeed, looking toward the future just as surely as she is ready to let the past be at peace. Gone are the days of imaginative turns and flights of fancy that gave The Pirate's Gospel such a refreshing twist on Americana. The youthful romance and wistful wanderings of To Be Still have blown away in cold mountain breezes. Left behind is the deep pain of betrayal that bled through the heartrending songs of divorce-inspired About Farewell. More important than the moments before, though, are the ones to come, and on Cusp, Diane embraces the yet-to-come that she has set in motion for herself with a clarity of purpose and a musicality all the more sublime for the time she has spent living.
Since the heartbreak that inspired her last solo album, Alela Diane has remarried and given birth to two daughters, the songs of Cusp written between them. From her experiences in motherhood has come a wellspring of thoughts for the future and unshakable love. Diane also finds a deeper understanding for some of the other maternal figures in her life and beyond such as her own, a complicated relationship which has made its way into Diane's music before and which finds something closer to resolution in "Never Easy". Late folk singer-songwriter Sandy Denny, whose tragic death soon after giving birth to her daughter makes up the events of "Song for Sandy" and the countless numbers of refugee and immigrant mothers who imperil themselves in an attempt to preserve their families, the subject of dire "Émigré".
A broken fingernail during recording makes Cusp a piano-heavy album rather than one centered around Diane's usual bare-laid strings. That is no loss; her unmistakable voice resonates along with the keys for a fuller sound, one that better fits the substance of her songs without overwhelming the intimate production style that has always been a strength of Diane's best cuts. She delivers each clear line with power and with plainness; the streaks of wisdom that seemed preternatural when she was younger now flow forth through her lyrics with the added fortification of time and experience, bolstering each understated track.
Happiness can be a hard thing to write in a way that interests anyone but its bearer. Diane, though, has found bountiful inspiration in hers. It's a humbling lesson in embracing vulnerability; she holds nothing back as she lets the light shine on what must be some of the most personal thoughts and moments of her life thus far. "I know now what every mother knows," she sings in "Wild Ceaseless Song", the rapturous closing track of the album, "of what it is to watch your heart escape your chest." This newfound knowledge allows Diane to transcend past and present cares and move forward into something closer to a true heaven. Cusp is an incandescent glimpse of it.