High praise is owed to anyone who can conjure coherent words and music following a tremendous personal loss. When those songs are beautiful and can stand up on their own without the backstory, it’s even more impressive. Joan Kelsey’s loss of a friend due to suicide inspired their latest release, and it’s a minor miracle of an album, with unforgettable melodies and unique arrangements colliding softly into a dreamlike gem.
Standing Out on the Grass is Kelsey’s full-length follow-up to 2020’s House of Mercy. “In a time of tremendous difficulty,” they explain on their Bandcamp page, “I tried to make something life-affirming: grieving songs which look toward joy and ‘answer that of God in everyone’, as George Fox said.” The album is not filled with minor-key ruminations on death (although that would be perfectly understandable, given Kelsey’s loss); instead, there is a sense of comfort among the hooks and clever, eloquent lyrics woven throughout the album’s ten tracks.
“Raise the glass that overlooks the driveway,” Kelsey sings over gentle acoustic guitar fingerpicking in the first song, “Alone”. “Watch the house spill out on the yard.” The loss is compounded by the chorus’ heartbreaking line: “I know you loved me / Even though you couldn’t say it.” Standing Out on the Grass‘ instrumentation conveys deep warmth, with the ever-present acoustic guitar often accompanied by piano, brushed drums, and a variety of other instruments (Wurlitzer, saxophone, violin, to name a few).
While the music tends to project an air of comfort and semi-knotty folk complexity, Kelsey’s lyrics often reach sumptuous levels of stream-of-consciousness. “Then the mountain wood, the enemy / Self-immolates and blows its breath across the lake to the Western shore,” Kelsey sings on “Pachomius”, “Where I spend my days with the journals of John Woolman.” The ethereal, almost mystical air of the compositions and atmosphere seem inspired by the more layered, postmodern sonic structure of artists like Dave Scanlon and Ben Seretan (the latter providing lap steel on the album). The modest complexity of the songs isn’t necessarily meant to mask the grief; instead, it’s possible that Kelsey’s loss has inspired them to seek out beauty in less conventional artistic forms.
In the dense, longing “Hero”, Kelsey seems to namecheck the source of the grief: Britta (whether or not this is a real name or a nickname isn’t spelled out in liner notes, which is perfectly fine). “Hero, I look back / The living room we crawled around / Hero, I crawl back / The animal, the heart, the ground / Britta, I crawl back / The living you, the animal, the ground.” On the Bandcamp page, Kelsey’s friend Kamryn Wolf also references Britta: “After Britta killed herself, my grief felt like trying to juggle cement bricks while jumping backwards through a halo of fire.”
“There’s an eloquent stoicism to songs like “Aiden”, where Kelsey is accompanied by acoustic guitar interplaying warmly with clarinet. In “Tulsi”, they intersperse an imaginative string arrangement throughout the song, and a spoken word sample provides a striking effect that is probably indicative of some personal connection the listener isn’t aware of (and doesn’t need to be).
While the violin that provides the opening instrumental focus of “I Thought About a Rose” gives the song a distinct Americana feel, Kelsey is not genre-hopping in the hopes of appealing to a wider audience. Standing Out on the Grass’ musical genre – indie folk, if one insists on applying labels – is not necessarily the point here. Kelsey expresses grief the best way they know how: by composing songs of significant meaning and distinct beauty.
“I read somewhere that a prayer is words for when words feel like too much, movement for when life gets stuck in the body,” writes Wolf in Standing Out on the Grass‘ notes. “These songs, I think, are Joan’s prayers.”