Tomberlin’s (aka Sarah Beth Tomberlin) new album sounds like an anthology of snippets more than a collection of songs. The individual tracks don’t have conventional beginnings, middles, and ends. Instead, they seem to dwell in a space where time doesn’t pass. The music exists as a presence. There is something cosmic about the experience, leavened by Tomberlin’s sense of humor.
“I know I’m not Jesus / but Jesus I’m trying to be,” she sings. Tomberlin uses the name of the Christian God as both the actual deity and a colloquial expletive in the same sentence. The mix of the sacred and the profane is clearly meant to be ambiguous. Tomberlin wants to be a better person, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She wants to be someone else, and that person would be her authentic self. The joke is on her.
The instrumental accompaniment is frequently austere and natural sounding. It can resemble horse hoofs clopping out a beat, the whoosh of wind, or a clash of tree branches and rain during a quiet storm on songs like “Tap”. Conventional instruments also play a roll, like the cooing of a reed instrument, the gentle strum of a guitar, and the tinkling of piano keys on the lovely “Collect Caller”. The louder songs, such as “Stoned”, start at an increased volume and stay there. Tomberlin’s not afraid of the music going off-key as she keeps everything steady. The songs don’t fade out as much as they just end.
“What’s the point of this if I know how it ends,” Tomberlin sings in “Happy Accident”, as she ironically explains that is the whole point; we never know how anything ends. In this case, she is writing about a love affair, but this is consistent with her attitude towards life in the other songs. Because everything is uncertain, how do we know what matters? And if we don’t know what’s important or relevant, how are we supposed to act?
Tomberlin grew up the daughter of a Baptist pastor and went to college at a private Christian school. Her first musical experiences were with the church. She rebels against the orthodoxy but finds comfort in addressing spiritual questions. That informs Tomberlin’s songs about friends and lovers and more existential matters. “Sing it like it is a prayer / Sing it like no one else is there,” she chants on “idkwntht” (short for “I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This”), but she doesn’t sing it alone. Each line Tomberlin croons is repeated by a spoken male voice belonging to Felix Walworth). Tomberlin says she sings to make herself feel better, yet the evidence suggests she needs to feel heard.
As to who else needs to hear it, the rhetorical statement clarifies that during these times of trouble (unnamed here, but one can assume we all could use some solace after the past few years) that we all do. We measure time by what has passed. “Memory is a silent killer,” Tomberlin intones on “Memory”. Nostalgia can be a bitch and make one afraid of living in the present, not to mention fear of the future. Life will never be the same again.
Tomberlin punctuates her album title, i don’t know who needs to hear this…, with an ellipsis but asks it like a question. One can take it as a threat or a promise. She presents both options and lets the listener decide.