Willie Reviews Joan Shelley’s “Like the River Loves the Sea”

Willie Reviews Joan Shelley’s “Like the River Loves the Sea”

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Folk singer and guitarist Joan Shelley’s Like the River Loves the Sea resounds with the pains and pleasures of love while also serenading a changing earth. Here’s RPM’s review:

On the cover of Joan Shelley’s Like the River Loves the Sea is a nearly symmetrical nature landscape. The trees that frame the mountain and the flowers that shape the land appear to be mirror images, but the hand that painted each side finished them differently. The scene depicts the effortless order we see in nature whether it’s really there or not. The organic patterns in plants and water are more sublime than our own rules of order due to their fuzzy edges and unwillingness to ever be totally understood. The bigness we sense in the natural world can make us feel small, or it can comfort us. Shelley’s folk music, rooted in Kentucky but expanding outward, takes bigness in stride and accepts it. When she writes of the “inevitable and at times indifferent nature of love” in reference to the album’s title, she folds the workings of the cosmos into the intimacy of one’s own thoughts. Most everything she sings about not only reflects on love and loving, but also the actual living things that surround us.

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Trials of love on the album often take the shape of natural patterns, as circular as the seasons. As “Cycle” trots along, Shelley reflects on “these strange cycle romances” in which both parties are in constant flux. We see “the longing rise and land” because the situation is a known entity—it happens like the seasons and with the seasons. And that makes the stories she tells all the more real and devastating. There’s also Shelley’s tendency to refer to a person’s “form,” shooting them into the abstract world. When she sings “the strength of your form” and “your form, it lingers,” she seems eager to merge people with their surroundings. It may be a lyrical image of the process of remembering, but most essentially this “form” expresses that inevitability and indifference.

But the album’s deeper melancholy seems to come from the reality of environmental decline, which she seems to insist should ultimately be as easy to swallow for us as it is for the trees and the grass. “The Fading” most directly addresses the reality of our warming planet. It’s not easy for a folk artist to pull so completely out of green and windy abstractions to examine the climate, but Shelley does. She sings “I saw the river thick with mud / Break through the banks and run. And I confess I liked it, I cheered the flood.” In certain ways, her version of apocalypse—the fading—celebrates nature’s unknowing victory over the rashness of humans. While people carefully plan out their destruction, a river simply does what it will. I won’t comment on whether or not Shelley’s thoughts here are a wise policy goal, but it isn’t so very odd to “see the beauty in all the fading.” It’s a way of mimicking nature’s outlook. Just as the water has no eyes and preferred direction, we can try to act stoically, as unmoved as a stone in a river.

Joan Shelley "The Fading" (Official Video)

Still, it’s hard to imagine this drive toward stoicism overwhelming our desire for things to happen just as we expect. In other words, we shouldn’t hope to change. “Haven” dwells in a comfortable place with no intention of leaving. Its focus is stubbornly against the enormity of much of the album. Finding a spot within the crumbling walls to stop and think is too important to look over. “High On the Mountain” takes a spot in nature and remembers its significance across time. The speaker’s relationship with another changed, but the trees and sun persisted. It’s a familiar theme, but it’s complicated by Shelley’s vacillations between romanticizing times past and singing the praises of a place “so entwined just as you and I used to be.” The flowers begin to replace the longing, smoothing over ache with broad strokes.

Score: Torch songs for the end of the world.

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