Women have been cast in all manner of roles in song. They’ve been the object of desire and the subject of scorn. They’ve been the “other woman”; the evil antagonist responsible for kinds of ill. But seldom has the lyrical portrait that’s painted been emotionally three-dimensional. On her latest album, You Wanted to Be the Shore But Instead You Were the Sea, singer-songwriter, Natalie D-Napoleon, seeks to change all that, presenting 12 eclectic songs that explore all facets of the feminine mystique.
Recorded in an old chapel in the hills behind her adopted hometown of Santa Barbara, California, the album quickly reveals itself as a defining musical moment for the American/Australian singer-songwriter. Recorded for the most part live by a quartet — that in addition to D-Napoleon on acoustic guitars also includes Dan Phillips on piano and percussion, producer and upright bassist James Connolly, and Doug Pettibone on electric guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin — the album serves up a collection of deftly crafted songs that take the listener on an emotional rollercoaster.
“Thunder Rumor” not only serves as the perfect introduction to the album, but its tempered, catchy instrumentation perfectly echoes the discontent in the story while D-Napoleon’s vocals sublimely drive home the lyrical lament. In exploring the emotions associated with breaking free of an abusive relationship, the song by all accounts had a difficult birth. Folk-icon Mary Gauthier apparently brought D-Napoleon to tears via her critique of an early draft. But there was obviously a method to her harshness. The result delivers one of the songwriter’s finest compositional prodigies.
While D-Napoleon’s airy acoustic guitar and Phillips’ spritely piano on “How to Break a Spell” wistfully lightens the tone, Connolly’s gorgeous bowing of his upright bass provides a crucial anchor to a song that could have almost been a whimsical aberration on the album. Instead, you find yourself scrambling to memorize all of D-Napoleon’s spell-breaking instructions – just in case you ever find yourself in a spot of incantation.
The game of emotional tag continues with “Wildflowers”. Its brutal low end and pulsating banjo, chiming mandolin, and ethereal backing vocals, offer a hauntingly beautiful contemporary take on a timeless bluegrass ballad while “Second Time Around” returns Phillips front and center in a piano-driven ballad about being grateful for second chances. By the time Pettibone’s deft tremolo guitar supersedes Connolly pounding upright bass lines in “Soft”, a song about women defying expectation, You Wanted to Be the Shore But Instead You Were the Sea has well and truly divulged its agenda: to find beauty in the everyday emotions we all too often take for granted.
Characters in song don’t come any more complex than the voice we encounter in the album’s title track. The surging instrumentation – a mix of acoustic, electric, and pedal steel guitars coupled with an aching double bass, ethereal piano, and crescendoing percussion – poignantly swells with D-Napoleon’s disillusioned vocals as she fires off cuttingly poetic barbs like “It wasn’t about me it was about you/ You were never there when I needed you” and “When I was a child I wanted to believe/ You were the shore but instead you were the sea”. If “Thunder Rumor” opened the door to the album’s emotional subjugation then it all came flooding in with “You Wanted to Be the Shore But Instead You Were the Sea”.
Close your eyes and “Gasoline & Liquor” has you making a solo getaway down an empty desert highway with the chilly winds of change propelling the journey via some misty backing vocals and echoing pedal steel. The rustic acoustic rattle of “Mother of Exiles” – which takes it inspirational cue from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” at the statue of Liberty – crescendos into a staunch affirmation of the ties of liberty and the American dream.
One of the most affecting – and as a consequence, one of the most striking – moments comes in the form of “Reasons”. Here D-Napoleon questions “Does heaven need another angel? / Does time really heal all pain? / Does everything happen for a reason?” before surmising “Maybe we make the reasons to ease the pain”. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful serenade about a mother dealing with the loss of a child, rendered empathically by an underpinning of a cello.
To round out the album, “Cut Your Hair” is a free-for-all of liberation while “Broken” is an aching ode to a damaged soul whereby D-Napoleon observes “What I see is beauty in your vulnerability / As the tears roll down your face”. It comes as no surprise to learn that in addition to being a musician, D-Napoleon is also a nationally awarded poet – having won the Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize in 2018 during a hiatus from music — as lines such as those, that cut through your very being, permeate the album.
What stands this album apart from other current releases is its raw honesty, both figuratively and literally. There the occasional click or bang buried in the mix– the album was recorded by four people playing live in a church, after all – but this only serves to reinforce the inherent candour of the work. You Wanted To Be the Shore But Instead You Were the Sea is audacious, assured, disarming, and even vulnerable. It does not idolize or embellish the women whose stories it tells. It does them a far greater service – it gives them an honest voice. And a powerful one at that.