On I’ve Got Me, Joanna Sternberg Keeps Going

The DIY musician’s multifaceted new album tracks a dogged healing process through 12 reflective chapters

Music Reviews Joanna Sternberg
On I’ve Got Me, Joanna Sternberg Keeps Going

Joanna Sternberg contains multitudes. Their music escapes easy definition: Drawing from their career as a stand-up bassist and a family legacy of comedy, Yiddish theater, and opera, it’s grounded in formal music expertise while still maintaining a distinctly DIY sound. Their 2021 album Then I Try Some More built off of this complexity to relate despair with whimsy, exploring depression and hopelessness with penguin metaphors and piano keys. This won them a brush with virality, as well a touring spot with Conor Oberst. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted that tour, Phoebe Bridgers praised Sternberg’s work in a homebound “What’s In My Bag” video for Amoeba Music. Holding up a copy of Then I Try Some More, she praises the album art and insists “I think everything they touch turns to gold.”

In the midst of all this praise, Sternberg was secluded in the walls of Manhattan Plaza, writing the music that would become their next album: I’ve Got Me. Established as an artists-only residential community in the 1970s, Manhattan Plaza is a New York legend that has housed greats from Charles Mingus to Larry David, but I’ve Got Me is entirely Sternberg’s own. Out today via Fat Possum Records, all the artwork and instrumentation was done by themselves, and it’s their debut recording as an electric guitarist, string arranger and drummer. This is fitting for an album that’s distinctly preoccupied with the struggles of self-love.

The songs on I’ve Got Me start simply, then bloom into playful complexity. The title track builds off of the themes of Then I Try Some More, exploring the ways that a commitment to growth can mask self-destruction. “I’ve Got Me” almost starts off as a pep talk before the edge creeps in, with Sternberg picking behind a sing-songy “all my faults and flaws and lies are no one’s fault but mine.” But where “This is Not Who I Want to Be” went external two years ago, hoping for another person to come along and force a change, “I’ve Got Me” dreams of breaking out of these patterns. It’s a struggle that continues throughout the album, as Sternberg tracks a dogged healing process through twelve deeply reflective tracks.

“Stockholm Syndrome” and “People Are Toys to You” seem to approach the same situation from different angles, both sonically and emotionally. The latter is a scorching callout that comes early on the album. Led by a palm-muted electric guitar, the track is sharp and angry in its assessment of both sides in a bad relationship, declaring: “I agreed to all you put me through.” Later, the former takes a softer approach, leading with acoustics as Sternberg looks back on drunken nights and a dirty apartment. It’s these memories that reveal the how and why of the toxic dynamics that they write about. Grief lingers in dusty corners and liquor bottles, and an uninhabitable space acts as a metaphor not only for emotional messes that need cleaning but a partner who refuses to make room.

Sternberg continues to play with the anti-folk palettes of Mal Blum, Daniel Johnston and Kimya Dawson on I’ve Got Me, but other sounds are also braided in, including those of fellow New Yorkers. There’s a hint of Velvet Underground in “Right Here” and “I’ll Make You Mine,” a-la the tender avant-garde of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Stephanie Says,” and Sternberg’s voice evokes Karen Dalton as it treks peaks and valleys. Judee Sill’s can particularly be felt on “Mountains High,” which leads with an anthemic piano. The notes climb as Sternberg’s lyrics echo “Jesus Was a Cross Maker”: “I once loved someone and now they don’t remember my name.”

This notion of wishing to be seen and appreciated by others is a direct parallel to the album’s self-esteem narrative, and it’s one that’s rendered to heartbreaking effect on “She Dreams.” The music would lend well to an old country song, while the lyrical metaphors are as timeless as they are resonant: hair black as night, a face “sweet like the morning rain,” eyes as piercing as swords. It’s a crushing lament that mourns a lover who’s mourning another, but taken in context of the rest of the album, a new question emerges: How do you wind up giving everything to someone with nothing to give back?

The tracks on I’ve Got Me seem to go back and forth in their relationship to turmoil, but this shouldn’t be taken as disorganization. Rather, the album’s ordering feels acutely intentional: Grief is nonlinear, as is healing. Sternberg refuses to twist the story, even if it would make a neat bow for the album’s narrative. By the end, with “The Song,” they’re frank in their acknowledgement that the work is far from over. Over a slow-and-steady guitar progression, they declare songs to be sung and a mind to be eased, but not yet. There’s a hope in that, a resolve if not a resolution: “Maybe one day, when my pain goes away, I will get up and get out
and get free.”

Annie Parnell is a writer, radio host and audio producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in The Virginia Literary Review, Pop Matters, The Boot and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @avparnell and at her website, avparnell.wordpress.com.

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