Johanna Warren’s sophomore album, n?m?n, has a straightforward songwriting ancestry, less influenced by her time performing with the likes of Iron & Wine and Natalie Merchant than it is by listening to singer/songwriter heavyweights like Joni Mitchell and Elliott Smith. Likewise, the album’s literal lineage can be traced to a Kickstarter campaign, while her lyrical inspirations and guiding forces are hardly veiled in Warren’s lyrics or in her interviews. But like the moon and stars in the sky that never fail to impress with their brightness no matter how well we have their movements mapped out, Warren’s music has the power to also shine through predictability.
Warren is the type of wordsmith who fills her songs with a stream-of-consciousness flow, to the point where the listener receives an intimate encounter just by listening. Whether this is good or bad is virtually irrelevant. Or, as Warren says on “True Colors,” “forget the duality of wrong or right.” While n?m?n does have songs that are stronger assets and others that are weighed down in lyrical clunkiness, every part of the record feels essential to the other. Warren doesn’t seem to attempt making a perfect record, unconcerned with saying too much, but more worried about saying too little. On “Figure 8,” she runs through a laundry list of “what if”s, some cliched and some more compelling, with the seeming intent to create an accurate reflection of who she is rather than worry about being criticized for oversharing.
This results in n?m?n reading as a brave album despite its up-and-down nature. Warren’s inclinations with how to spice up her finger-picking and folk melodies are usually wise, with the ambient “Apogee” providing a much-needed pause in the album’s middle, while opener “Black Moss,” one of the album’s best, is a more nuanced and richly recorded song than those that follow, putting her best foot forward. On the other end of the album, closer “The Wheel” allows itself to climax and degenerate, hinting that Warren is just getting started with what she is capable of sonically.
In a recent interview, Warren noted “when I move into a period of darkness, I do not judge myself, just as you would not judge the Moon when she is in shadow.” Warren speaks about the Moon as a spiritual guide, but the idea of being as okay with her own moments of brightness and darkness, as she would hope for the the listener to embrace the ebb and flow of her songwriting, lifts n?m?n consistently. Warren shows enough moments of brilliance to make the cycle worthwhile for her audience. And the lasting impression is that even better songs are still to come.