Julie Byrne Balances Loss With Letting Go on The Greater Wings

The singer’s third album is beautiful and frequently sublime

Music Reviews Julie Byrne
Julie Byrne Balances Loss With Letting Go on The Greater Wings

The words “mystical” and “astral” get thrown around a lot in relation to Julie Byrne’s music, but there’s nothing so enigmatic about what the singer and songwriter is doing on The Greater Wings, her first new album in six years. She’s parsing grief, while trying her damnedest to lean towards joy. The only mystery here is how she manages to do it with such grace and elegance.

Byrne has a poetic way of describing the world around her. Thoughts, feelings, sunrises—she treats them all with an almost delicate lyrical touch that can land with the force of thunder: “Love affirms the pain of life,” she sings on “Portrait of a Clear Day.” Paired with song arrangements that often start with intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar (surely the source of all those “astral” projections), Byrne’s songs on The Greater Wings are never short of being beautiful, and sometimes even sublime.

She summons various moods across these 10 tracks. “Summer Glass” feels almost experimental, as a skittering synthesizer cascades around Byrne’s voice, contrasting with the flowing sound of a harp and a deep, sonorous bass frequency. Her simple, repeating guitar part on “Lightning Comes Up from the Ground” almost melts into her soft-spoken vocal melody and a wash of synthesizers that rises through the song like a ground fog. Elsewhere, “Moonless” seems to float in a dreamscape, where a blend of piano, synthesizers and strings envelop Byrne’s murmuring voice.

Though Byrne’s songs tend toward understated, she frequently imbues them with a subtle urgency. Amid drifting synth textures on “Flare,” she anchors the chords she’s picking with a steady, thrumming bass note that propels the song. Byrne uses a similar low-string technique for emphasis on the pastoral “Portrait of a Clear Day,” a song at once sweetly yearning and devastating. Byrne wraps her darksome voice around a melody that rises and falls over a brisk, hypnotic guitar part, her pauses and wordless interludes lending the track a sense of vibrant intimacy.

Though “Portrait of a Clear Day” hasn’t come out as a single, it is in many ways the standout track on The Greater Wings. Not only does it linger like the heat of a sweltering summer day, it’s the one where Byrne strikes the most compelling balance between the pain of loss (in this case, her creative partner Eric Littmann, who was 31 when he died suddenly in 2021) and letting go of it. “I get so nostalgic for you sometimes,” she sings at the very end. The considerable power of The Greater Wings lies in how Byrne makes that specific feeling universal, and how resonant it becomes in the artfully woven tapestry of her music.

Watch Julie Byrne’s Paste studio session from 2019 here.

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among other publications. Follow him on Mastodon or visit his website.

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