Julie Doiron writes album openers like they are cold emails from a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time—seemingly out of the blue, but undeniable in their comfort and charm. On her last official solo release, So Many Days, she provided a modest mission statement on “Cars and Trucks,” the album’s lead-off track, about the way inspiration comes to her. “So, I’m writing this song to prove to myself maybe I can write songs,” she sang, “Been putting it off for all kinds of reasons I’ve been afraid to try.” Reading into it, it makes all the sense in the world that it has been nine years since Doiron released an official solo album. It’s an uncanny understanding of not forcing the muse that she maintains on her brand new album, I Thought Of You.
While it has been close to a decade since the release of So Many Days, the Canadian musician hasn’t exactly been silent during that time. In 2017, she released an album under the moniker Julie & The Wrong Guys with members of the Toronto hardcore band Cancer Bats, which found her exploring a little more muscular territory than her varied solo work or collaborations with the beloved lo-fi heroes Eric’s Trip. On top of that, she continued her ongoing Canta en Espanol series, which consists of Spanish-language reimaginings of her older work. In 2019, she also linked back up with Phil Elverum of The Microphones and Mount Eerie fame to release the critically acclaimed Pt. 2 of their Lost Wisdom project.
With so many projects keeping her busy in the years between solo albums, you’d think a check-in with Doiron wouldn’t be necessary. But within the first two lines of I Thought of You’s opening track “You Gave Me The Key,” it’s like she is giving you a life update in a tiny corner of a packed bar. “There was never a plan, no need to explain,” she sings in her forever recognizable quiver, “But here I am, starting over again.”
When the track kicks in with the full force of her backing band, with ultra-prolific rock savant and You’ve Changed Records head Daniel Romano on guitar, his brother Ian on drums, and songwriter Dany Placard on bass, the sense of playfulness of Doiron’s best work is on full display. Much like their recordings with their phenomenal band The Outfit, the Romano brothers add a live-wire energy to songs like this one and the chooglin’ title track. The latter finds Doiron giving listeners the dirt as to why she may have not been in as much of a confessional mood until now. “It’s been so long, I haven’t had a lot to say,” she sings over Romano’s dry tremolo guitar, “But honestly, I felt ashamed / And honestly I’ve been afraid to say I thought of you.” Just like in the physical sense, grieving the death of a romance takes time to process. For Doiron, perhaps she needed to divert her creativity for a while in order to find the unflinching perspective she reaches all over I Thought Of You.
Recorded in a remote cabin in the woods, the album’s bristling chemistry between Doiron and her band finds the best balance between bare folk and her love of frenzied guitars since perhaps her 2002 album with Wooden Stars. Similar to that collaboration, hearing Doiron find ways to cut through the heaviness of this band is the best possible showcase for her expressive, singular vocals. She combines the hushed cool of Kim Deal with the vulnerable acrobatics of Leslie Feist, a kind of priceless natural ability. When she stretches the line, “I was still learning, my heart wasn’t open yet,” on the paralyzing ballad “The Letters We Sent,” Doiron proves that the balance of the high-wire act is just as much about the weight of her words as it is these moments of beauty. The song also contains Romano’s most wounded Crazy Horse-style guitar-playing on the record, further wringing out any heartache left in the album’s emotional standout.
The only moments on the album that don’t work are those that don’t quite measure up to either Doiron or her backing band’s strengths. Songs like the plodding psychedelia of “Just When I Thought” or the one-note stomp of “Ran” outwear their welcome simply by not turning as far left as they should have. Rather than adding a sense of variety to the album’s tracklist, they wind up sounding like unfinished ideas amidst a handful of inspired tunes.
On the album’s closing track “Back to the Water,” an unaccompanied Doiron assesses her current place in the world, an act of good bedside manner before saying goodbye. “I don’t need to know the answers / I don‘t need to be found / I’ve been given so many chances / There’s suffering all around,” she sings with the assuredness of someone who just put in their two weeks at their soul-killing nine-to-five to wander the globe in search of enlightenment. “I know that there’s a lesson here for me to learn,” she adds, closing the album on, “I’ve been here before.”
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.