Album Review: Julie Byrne – The Greater Wings

[Ghostly International; 2023]

A while back, I was fortunate enough to finally get a chance to see Grouper live. It was during her tour for her last LP, Shade, and although it featured very few recognizable Grouper songs, it was beautiful and transportive all the same. Opening for her, though, was ambient composer Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. While he played one continuous, enveloping drone piece, a female singer sang — mostly wordlessly, I think — at his side. It was the perfect accompaniment to his eerie but placid piece, her voice weaving in and out and around it like water.

I didn’t know until after the show that it was Julie Byrne sitting on that stool, half-shrouded in moonlight-like stage lights and shadows. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t pinned her voice: a signature smoky smooth instrument, unfurling like a silken quilt. It made such perfect sense with Cantu-Ledesma’s work that I must have not been able to transpose the voice I had listened to so many times singing over the delicate acoustic watercolors of her sophomore LP, Not Even Happiness, into this synthetic and droning atmosphere. But it was a harmonious marriage, and, in retrospect, reified everything I already believed and loved about Byrne and her ability to relocate you elsewhere when she sings, whether that’s a glade beneath a cerulean blue sky, or a dark and humid wetland.

On her third record, The Greater Wings, she mostly returns to her own personal milieu — that of the ground and sky, of guitars and harp and strings. Coming after a long six year gap that saw Byrne engage with rigorous touring, collaborations with other artists, and the tragic loss of close collaborator Eric Littman in 2021 — who produced part of this record before his death with Byrne, who then enlisted Alex Somers to finish the project with her — The Greater Wings is a document of love, loss, connection, and the natural world. Although elements of grief and sadness are stitched into these songs, much of it was written before Littman’s passing, lending the album an eternal, cyclical feeling. As she said in a recent Guardian interview, there is so much longing and yearning in grief, in addition to the sadness. That longing is rife on The Greater Wings — a longing for learning, for renewal, for people, for life itself.

If you were a fan of Not Even Happiness, the odds are high you’ll find much to enjoy here. It might not be a huge reinvention, but it does cement Byrne’s status as a forerunner in her field. The opening title track is classic Byrne: thick guitar fingerpicking, pleasant strings, a healthy dose of reverb, and a gently ascending melody sung in her velveteen voice. It feels a little clearer and sharper than her past work, with finer and more robust production giving her songs more breathing room. The song finds Byrne in a moment of reflection, taking in everything around her and looking outward for more and for welcome, but there’s also an undeniable linkage to her sense of loss, as when she sings the lovely and heartbreaking “You’re always in the band / Forever underground / Name my grief to let it sing”. In creating music out of this emotional excavation and unnaturally hard times, Byrne has found a pinhole up to the sun.

Nature has been a massive inspiration to Byrne’s past work, and that’s unchanged here. Natural imagery is conjured again and again throughout these songs — in the lyrics and even in many of the song titles — imbuing the world around us with a sensitive, divine weight. “Moonless” gives us a sky with no moon above a dark ocean. “Summer Glass” shows us our singer at the water’s edge, contemplating the nature of desire, as the sun comes up on her own piece of the shoreline. The sun rises on her again on “Flare”, further deepening her solar and lunar symbolism. But in between all this imagery, which might feel slightly familiar to longtime fans, are enough variations on her usual mode to keep it feeling fresh.

After the first two rather expected cuts, “Moonless” gives us a slowly crawling piano ballad, a deeply moving ode to discovering love (“I found it there in the room with you / Whatever eternity is”) that feels as timeless as an old painting. Harp trickles in, covering her voice in dewy crystal drops. Closer “Death is the Diamond” is another piano ballad, and while it may not have quite the magnetic pull of “Moonless”, it does have one of the album’s most emotive, plaintive melodies, as she sings lines like “You make me feel like the prom queen I never was.” “Hope’s Return” (a rework of a collaborative piece she did with Cantu-Ledesma a couple years back) finds Byrne strumming with a slightly unusual vigor, almost like a The Man Who Died In His Boat-era Grouper song, and then the strings and percussion joins in, alongside ghostly backing vocals, and the song is ushered into a higher stratosphere than a Byrne song usually shoots for. 

Perhaps most unexpected is early single “Summer Glass”, which rests almost entirely upon Littman’s fluttering, arpeggiated synth. It’s not the first time Byrne has sung over electronic flourishes — for one, her last album ended with “I Live Now As a Singer”, which also hinged on a Littman-produced bed of synths — but it feels nearly out of character for her to be singing over such a flashy, nimble instrumental. And yet, it’s perfect: a memory piece about human connection and a moment of intimacy, supported with a blooming synth texture, harp, and heavenly strings and bass. It’s a short story unto itself, sung by an artist with a very firm grasp on her strengths.

Releasing a record after such an extended wait, and having that wait be suffused with grief and loss, is a tough gig. Many will rush to find hints of Byrne’s grieving process within the lyrics, even though it was largely written prior to it, and yet you can’t really outrun it either. Even songs that are so much about joy and love and excitement and vitality become engraved with melancholy when released in the wake of something like that. But The Greater Wings, for all its inevitable connotations, is not a downer. It’s a beautiful testament to life and to the people we love and that keep us going, physically and spiritually. It’s also a testament to moving forward with grace and strength, and rediscovering that longing to live. As Byrne sings at the end of “Summer Glass”: “I want to be whole enough to risk again.” It sounds like she’s made it there, or like she’s at least firmly toeing the warm waters of that renewal. Like she’s ready.