Album Review: Tomberlin – Projections EP

[Saddle Creek; 2020]

On her debut album, At Weddings, Sarah Beth Tomberlin sounded wise and weary well beyond her then-23 years. Given the backstory of her having lost her faith – the thing that had guided her life and introduced her to music – it was unsurprising that she should put out such an emotionally heavy record. Even mentions of things like homework and video games came attached to more burdensome ideas.

Since At Weddings she’s toured extensively, enjoyed life as an openly queer woman, and relocated to Los Angeles, among several other personal developments. She’s more distanced from her previous life than ever, and that’s where we find her on new EP, Projections; figuring out who she is now.

This new approach to her own mind has allowed Tomberlin to write her most uplifting music so far – aided by co-production from Alex G, who adds some rhythmic ingenuity and dashes of the simple-yet-effective violin work often found in his own songs. Of course, Tomberlin is still the star here, and it’s quite wonderful to hear her sounding open to a world of possibility – some of it is difficult, but for the most part Projections is overwhelmingly positive.

“Hours” kicks off the set in a manner that doesn’t sound ostensibly a million miles away from At Weddings, but the brush-stick percussion gives it a warmth that couples wonderfully with the tale of burgeoning love. Furtive glances, delicate touches, it all comes to quietly crackling life in Tomberlin’s poetic voice. The following “Wasted” is the most outright playful she’s ever been, as she wraps her dextrous guitar playing and colourful lyricism around an infectiously loping beat, magnificently capturing the freedom and possibility of a long hot summer.

She tips back toward heavier tones on Projections’ back half, but she still finds ways to see things through the prism of the freer woman she is now. “Floor” revisits an old relationship, describing how she and her loved one watched a movie in silence, before being unable to sleep while her partner slumbers beside her, her carefully-chosen words and the rustic alt-folk production placing us in the room, breathing the same air. “Sin” takes on a light alt-country twang that belies the challenging nature of the lyrics, in which Tomberlin reflects on her sexuality, trying to explain herself and making jokes about it, before winding up at the self-accepting smirk “I don’t mind sinning if it’s with you.” She finishes with a cover of “Natural Light” by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, which she nimbly transmutes into her own diaphanous style, the regretful and nostalgic themes matching the overall tone of Projections and capping it with a fine bow.

In many ways, Projections feels like a restart for Tomberlin. While not instrumentally a far cry from At Weddings, it feels like a whole new mind-set going into her songwriting, and it almost feels like this is her exploring the youth she should have had. While the songs present reflections on cherished and painful memories, the title Projections suggests a look into her future – and with her horizons now wider than ever, it’s never looked brighter.