Singer-songwriter Julie Byrne‘s first album in five years is her best work yet. Recorded with her long-time musical partner and collaborator Eric Littmann, The Greater Wings went unreleased after his untimely death. Finished last year, the record is a beautiful tribute to love and grief.
Byrne writes folk music with a contemporary and minimal edge, pairing lush acoustic guitar with soft-spoken vocals and richly contemplative lyrics. The Greater Wings has all the same charms of her earlier work but goes further, incorporating strings, harps, synths, and an often epic scope. The effect is personal and worldly, grounded yet spiritual, and above all else, profoundly affecting. “I drank the air to be near to you, voices widen through the room, distant galaxy moon, I’m not here for nothing,” Byrne sings on the opening title track, demonstrating such ambitions in the album’s first lines.
Themes of reflection upon one’s place in the universe, of life itself, and how love for another and the loss of that love play out across The Greater Wings. Memories of companionship and moments shared are recounted, be they on the somber piano and string-led “Moonless” or spacious “Conversation Is a Flowstate” or the appropriately bright “Portrait of a Clear Day”.
As mentioned, Byrne shows admirable progression as a songwriter and composer, particularly in using new instruments and moods. With its synth arpeggios, “Summer Glass” sounds transcendent, like the birth of a new world, while its instrumental coda, “Summer’s End”, is a gentle, warm close, assisted by magical harp flourishes.
One of the album’s standouts is “Flare”, which shows the depth of Byrne’s songwriting and her ear for melody. “One more hour gorgeous and wild, I could’ve done better / You’re not the only one,” she sings on a chorus that cuts right through in a devastating musing on grasping beauty and joy in the moment and holding onto it.
The penultimate, “Hope’s Return”, and closer, “Death Is the Diamond”, are both heartbreaking yet affirming of life and the need to carry on. “When I read your words / I felt the ringing of the world,” Byrne sings on the former, a gorgeous and breath-holding song of rising and climactic chords and layers of sound.
“Death Is the Diamond” presents a heartfelt tribute and a spectacular conclusion to The Greater Wings. Over minimal piano, Byrne, in her searching whisper sings of the passing of time and memory and the desire to approach a new day unafraid. “Blue dawn of night, go on / I’ve been missing you now with my whole life / Does my voice echo forward / Alive if only for a speck / My actions, all that I possess.” It is a stunning end to the record, made all the poignant in the knowledge of Eric’s passing: “And if need be, I will carry your death wish / You make me feel like the prom queen I never was.'”
The Greater Wings is sublime and difficult to fault. Fans of Byrne will be delighted and moved to hear her grow even further as an artist and songwriter, not least in her coming to terms with grief and pain. New listeners to Byrne will surely find an artist of great pathos and empathy whose talents may now get the wider hearing they deserve.