For most artists, change is inevitable. Maybe after five albums, Jolie Holland looked up and saw the corner she’d painted herself into and realized the perspective didn’t feed her in the way it used to. After years of producing pleasing, melodic collections of music in a folk and alt-country vein, it sounds like she made a decision to toss it all for her new album and try something different. The tough, awkward and sometimes compelling Wine Dark Sea is the result.
The biggest difference people will hear on Holland’s sixth album is that—with few exceptions—she’s eschewed the country twang and acoustic lilt of her former work in favor of a freer, looser and grungier raw guitar and swampy blues sound. In many ways, it’s hard to fault her choices. There’s always a risk in changing from an established style that has attracted a lot of listeners to something more edgy and possibly alienating. As much as music fans want to be predictably entertained by their favorite artists, when those artists refuse to budge from their identifiable sound, it is enough to ruin their careers—at least from a critical perspective. No matter how much money The Eagles or James Taylor continue to make, when was the last time they recorded anything remotely different than the music they’ve been churning out for the last four decades? A risk-taker like Neil Young has survived precisely because he has continually stepped outside of his—and his audience’s—comfort zone by putting out records like Trans and Living With War when he could easily have continued churning out paler versions of Harvest Moon until the cows came home.
Unfortunately, Wine Dark Sea, for all of its effort to sound different, is often not that interesting or inviting. It sounds like what it is: a transitional album, and if it could have been content with that designation, it might have been more successful. The problem of expectation lies partly with the advance press that went overboard telling people how daring and cutting-edge the music on Wine Dark Sea is, and how the cream of the New York free jazz and noise scenes were recruited and set loose on Holland’s compositions. One pundit even claimed that the music on Wine Dark Sea represented the most melodically adventurous music recorded anywhere this decade. Well, without going into what total bullshit that is, you have to wonder why Holland couldn’t have just quietly put the thing out without much fanfare and painted the album as “fun” rather than “significant.” In the conscious pursuit of sonic adventure and outside ideas, the songs on Wine Dark Sea often feel boxed in and way too aware of themselves. The crunching guitars and slurred vocals work well on some cuts like the opener, “On and On” where the sound perfectly complements Holland’s lyrics. Listeners are prepared for an epic, hurting-song type of record, but it’s an approach that loses steam quickly. The first single, “Dark Days,” as well as “Route 30” and “I Thought It Was The Moon” feature the inventive lyrics Holland’s fans expect, but they sound quite indistinguishable from each other because of the sameness of the treatment. After a while, the guitars sound like slurred sludge tacked onto the songs. They just don’t sound authentic or real. It’s as if the songs and the instruments have parted company, which is a shame.
Ironically, the best songs on Wine Dark Sea are the ones that don’t try as hard to sound unique. The Stax Records-inspired “The Love You Save” with its soulful vocals and simple arrangements show what a fine artist Jolie Holland is. Similarly, the next song, the Motown-ish “All The Love” is a beautiful piece of work with a simple melody that you won’t be surprised to find yourself humming all day. Songs like these ones work because Holland took her art-school thinking cap off and simply let the music move her without trying to create music that was self-consciously “deep” or “significant.”
It’s easy to be critical, and it’s understandable why artists stick with their established styles rather than face resistance when they try to shake things up. And, as much as some of the songs on Wine Dark Sea fail to reach the level of some of her previous efforts, Jolie Holland deserves praise for the risks she took with it. When the songs work, they’re loose, retro and fun. Vamping around the swampy blues and crashing guitar must have been an enjoyable experience, but it’s not a sound that sustains itself well over a whole album. Next time out, it’ll be interesting to hear what she keeps and values from the Wine Dark Sea experiment and what she abandons. Jolie Holland’s willingness to put everything on the line and play with sounds and ideas that aren’t entirely successful is what makes her worth following. Years from now, we may look back at Wine Dark Sea as the beginning of something, understand it differently than we do now and wonder how we could have been so deaf as not to hear what it had hidden in its grooves.