19 Aug 2023

The Greater Wings by Julie Byrne

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 19 August 2023

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Julie Byrne

Photo: Supplied

New York-born singer-songwriter Julie Byrne continues to blur the boundaries between ambient and folk music on her latest album. Like her previous work the songs often feature picked acoustic guitar at their heart, but synths and strings are common here too, and between her patient songwriting and specific tone of voice, its atmosphere is as important as any chord structure. 

I was already set to call it a masterpiece before I learned about the tragic circumstances of its creation, which add a whole new layer of meaning.

Byrne’s 2017 album Not Even Happiness brought her an avalanche of acclaim, after a first release that combined the songs from two lo-fi cassettes. She began recording its follow up in 2020 with her longtime collaborator and producer Eric Littmann, who died suddenly in 2021, aged just 31. 

The pair had a close creative relationship, Byrne crashing on the couch at his home studio while they mapped out the songs. After he died she wasn’t sure how to continue. Her new label Ghostly international paired her with Alex Somers, a producer known for his work with Sigur Ros and electronic musician Julianna Barwick. 

His sense of space ends up being a great match, and the songs feel huge while staying intimate. They’re also often achingly sad, and in the shadow of Litmann’s passing, take on extra resonance. The record grapples with a death that became a key part of its creation.

Now based in Los Angeles, Byrne brings the same slightly cosmic approach to her quotes about the album as she does to the music itself. When speaking about her instrument of choice, the acoustic guitar, and the way she grew up listening to her father play, she told Paste Magazine “It’s a living, breathing instrument. I feel like the guitar can still save my life again and again”.

That translates well to music this earnest: it would be impossible to fake the gravity that Byrne brings to each song. 

Joining her on the album are strings arranged by Jake Falby, Marilu Donavan on harp, and Littmann, who plays synth or piano on many tracks. All these elements combine on ‘Summer Glass’ which notably lacks guitar, and is the record’s most euphoric entry.

The Greater Wings was evidently made with great care, from Byrne’s meticulous songcraft, to the way its parts combine to form music that feels devotional. 

On ‘Flare’ she sings “In the pain it takes to reach this common prayer”, and when she hits the titular word, strings reverberate around her to goosebump-inducing effect.

Alex Somers is credited with arrangements on that track - notable in itself, that sort of work is usually unmentioned - and you can hear why he’s a good fit for Julie Byrne, matching her sense of otherworldliness.

The death of Eric Littmann does hang over The Greater Wings, and it’s very easy to read its lyrics as being about him, even if they initially weren’t. His absence becomes what the record is about, and its sadness is the kind that’s more touching because of the vein of hope running through each song. 

The final track ‘Death is the Diamond’, was, according to one publication, the only song written in Littman’s absence… but then according to another, he composed its piano part. That ambiguity is honestly fitting for a record that’s never specific, but is always gorgeous.