Album Review: Joanna Sternberg – I’ve Got Me

[Fat Possum; 2023]

Forty storeys up in the midst of Manhattan is probably one the places where you’d be most aware of your smallness and insignificance in the world. Joanna Sternberg wrote their second album I’ve Got Me from this vantage point, in their family’s 40th-floor apartment in an artist-subsidised tower in Manhattan Plaza, high above the throngs. But, rather than focus on their anonymity in this metropolis, they looked equally to the sky, their heart and their soul to find an inner value that charges the 12 songs on display here.

It starts with the title track, which functions as a mantra for the record: “I’ve got me in the morning / I’ve got me in the evening.” Even as the verses find the songwriter toiling with self-doubt, self-hatred and shame at their self-perceived “faults and flaws”, they circle their thoughts and rambunctious acoustic guitar playing back to that uplifting mantra; “I’ll let you be, because I’ve got me!” It’s a microcosm of the record as a whole, which finds Sternberg using unvarnished honesty in assessing their place and value in the world, their straightforward words and delivery resulting in unassuming profundity.

“I’m Drifting On A Cloud” finds them making the short jump from their balcony to the fluffy white transporters and this time they take a more meandering, piano-led approach to their self-evaluation. Up here, in the sky, they feel lighter as they realise “it’s been so long since I smiled / For no good reason, like a child”. Even when they fall out of their cloud into the heaviness of reality, their fortitude to weather their up and down moods is resounding and underlined by subtle string arrangements. It flows beautifully into the following piano epic “Mountains High”, a song written about a time when they were being dragged from pillar to post with obligations of babysitting, playing double bass, being a freelance artist and much more. While they acknowledge the draining nature of this existence, again their decidedly determined attitude breaks through and comes out in a ray of sunshine as they musically turn a child-like mantra into a spiritual revelation: “All I can do is try / When climbing mountains high.”

The majority of the remaining songs are about Sternberg’s romantic or interpersonal relationships – but again they find the songwriter assessing their own value in these double acts. “I Will Be With You” is on the more innocent end, almost hymnal in its composition and delivery, with Sternberg’s repetitions of the titular phrase making it sound like they’re speaking an unshakeable truth; one that holds a similarly impossible logic to Daniel Johnston’s classic “True Love Will Find You In The End”. Similarly, “I’ll Make You Mine” sounds possessive on the surface, but again Sternberg uses their unbelievably light jazz-inflected piano playing to underscore the innocent affection in lines like “I’ve been dreaming forever of you […] there’s nothing else I can do”. Turning these almost obsessively devotional words into lighthearted jollity is pure alchemy on Sternberg’s part; something that has come naturally through their upbringing, classic training and unique creativity.

However, things are not always rosy in Sternberg’s world, and some of the best songs on I’ve Got Me find them actualising their self-worth in a way that lashes out. “People Are Toys To You” starts with them making the crushing admission “you helped me see / just how much I hate me”, but, over a scratchy electric guitar and the rare appearance of drums (played by Sternberg themself), they find their backbone and turn the table: “People are toys to you / You’ll play and play with one until you’re bored and through”. Sternberg doesn’t sing it explicitly, but the swaggering arrangement and their more clipped vocal delivery make it clear: they know they’re better off now and they’re moving on to someone and somewhere else where they’ll be valued.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is another post-breakup song that finds Sternberg dwelling in the gory details of their romance; alcoholism and decrepitude chief among them. Yet, from their post-breakup vantage point, Sternberg can deliver these details in a breezy matter-of-fact manner that makes it clear they’ve realised they deserve more – a fact that is underlined by the casual zinger “Did you keep your room dirty so I’d feel like I had the flu / Did you expect me to clean it like your mom must’ve done for you”, followed by a gleeful “dah dee dum” outro. 

Of course, even as Sternberg realises their value and steps away from unhealthy pasts, they still dream of finding that person who will fulfill their needs and desires. We get some pure longing on the piano ballad “Right Here”, dejected jealousy on “She Dreams” and a unique kind of lust on “Human Magnet” (“I know we don’t get along / But no strength is as strong / As our magnets”). Rather than feel indulgent or cloying, the good will that Sternberg has built up in the other tracks makes the purity of their desires soar, and we get swept up in the self-involved drama. This especially true on “She Dreams”, which has a country-like lilt in its sway, pulling us into the pit alongside Sternberg as they confess “I know I will not love again” – and we feel the weight of that expression, even as we know Sternberg will rise again, fresh on another day, because we’ve heard songs like “Mountains High” and “I’ve Got Me” already.

I’ve Got Me winds up at “The Song”, a slow acoustic strummer in which Sternberg announces “This is the song I will sing when I’m gone / From the pain that you’ve put me through”. For once, they’re still stuck in the quagmire of heartbreak and unable to escape. It’s a heavy way to end the album, a more fatalistic approach to emotional pain than heard anywhere else on the record. It feels a bit incongruous – but they still turn it to their advantage, in a way only they could: “If I had any left to lose / Then I wouldn’t be playing the blues”. Once again, Sternberg’s irrepressible, impossibly human spirit shines through the darkness. 

This is the ultimate power of I’ve Got Me: the majority of songs here focus on negative experiences, but the feeling coming out the other end of listening to it is one of uplift and renewed resolve to make something of one’s life. It’s what makes the album sound both modern and timeless, and is sure to earn legions of quiet listeners lost among the bustle of the daily grind, hearing themselves in Sternberg’s words.