“I wrote these songs to heal from a breakup,” Mare Berger explains in the press notes of her new album, Dreaming Blue. “Each song helped me to shift from a raw, searing, narrow-feeling pain to the larger ocean of collection sadness and connection. The grief became the water that moved me, that held me, that transformed me.” It’s often said that great art can be derived from pain and loss, and Berger certainly makes a strong case for that on Dreaming Blue, the follow-up to her 2020 album The Moon Is Always Full. Focusing mainly on vocals and piano, the album draws from a deep well of legacy influential singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, as well as contemporaries such as Regina Spektor and Joanna Newsom.
Much like The Moon Is Always Full, Dreaming Blue – described on its Bandcamp page as “songs about water, grief, and embracing change” – sees Berger combining deeply felt lyrics with beautiful, cascading melodies, as on the opening track “Where I’m Bound to Go”, one of the most obviously Joni-inspired songs on an album filled with indescribably beautiful moments. Berger’s piano moves into deeply meditative jazz territory, and her lyrics express an unmoored surrender to the beauty of nature. “Oh, let the water take me,” she sings, “Where I’m bound to go.” A simple arrangement of vocals and piano keeps the focus smartly on the breathtaking lyrics and melodies.
Her connection to Brooklyn and love of nature inspired Berger to write “Prospect Park”, a loving tribute to that borough’s famous haven, a placeholder for memories of a former relationship. “This is where we picnicked till late,” she sings, “This is where you forgave me / In the dark / By the lake.” Later, she creates a painful, emotional refrain: “How do I move on?” It’s rare that a breakup can be conveyed musically in such a pure, honest manner.
Later, in “The Red Dragon”, Berger swims against the current to find a former love, only to be held back by a magical creature who presents her with a riddle. “If you love someone who doesn’t love you,” Berger sings, “What kind of love is that, true?” Berger replies in spoken word: “I have nothing to say / The dragon sends me back the other way.” Framing a song about love and loss in the context of a mystical creature puts Berger’s songwriting into an entirely new sphere of beauty and wonder. The musical arrangements serve to bolster the songs, as “The Red Dragon” boosts the piano and vocals with Shayna Dulberger’s acoustic bass, Rachel Gawell Burns on cello, and the gentle mandolin of Andrew Sheron.
The single “Fireflies” sees Berger shift from piano to acoustic guitar. Her falsetto sends her back into the magic of Joni territory, paired with sounds of nature and lyrics describing transience as it applies to love and nature: “Fireflies in the night / Shine, then lose their bright / Just a flicker of light.” Likewise, the gentle, easygoing nature of “Willow” recalls the effortless magic of Tapestry-era Carole King. Berger takes advantage of a full band setting, featuring Melody Berger on vocals, Chris Ball on bass, Jason Nazary on drums, Liza Kosack on Fender Rhodes and vocals, and – in an odd but interesting moment – Myk Freedman taking a jarring lap steel solo.
Other unique arrangements include the chimes and acoustic guitar that propel the mystical, almost hymn-like “Broken Bells of Light”, as the gentle strumming accompanies the vocals of Berger and Lindsey Stormo. “Falling backwards / In the verse of night,” they sing. “Stars move forward / Broken bells of light.” The song’s tenor evokes a long-forgotten, oft-recited spiritual, giving the song and its simple arrangement a timeless quality.
“I gave you everything I have,” Berger sings in “What I Still Have”, “And now I’m left with everything I have.” The track recognizes the pain of a broken heart but celebrates that Mare Berger is still very much Mare Berger and will move on through the grief. “I don’t have your love / But I still have mine.” The ten songs on Dreaming Blue are honest and painful in their acknowledgment of loss but remain positive and hopeful. Deeply felt lyrics, sung in Berger’s gorgeous, soaring voice, combined with sophisticated, often awe-inspiring arrangements, make Dreaming Blue an instant classic that demands to be heard. We’ve all felt this way; Berger is simply providing us with a soothing pathway through it all.