Stereogum Album of the Week: Joan Shelley ‘Like The River Loves The Sea’
The new season of Succession, HBO’s great show about the backstabbing machinations of a family of vampiric right-wing media barons, opens with an image of a man’s face half-submerged in warm, glassy water. Behind him, fog-shrouded mountains sprawl out. Kendall Roy, once thought to be the heir of this bloodsucking clan, is at an elite rich-guy rehab facility in Iceland, and he is trying to find peace. Kendall has just done something especially heinous himself, but he’s momentarily fooling himself, thinking that he can escape the soul-sucking void of his own family. Within seconds, he’s pulled back into the churn. That Icelandic landscape represents a lost promise — a place where you can, however briefly, convince yourself that the rest of the world does not exist. For the tiniest shred of time, Kendall finds a haven.
Like The River Loves The Sea, the new album from the Kentucky folk musician Joan Shelley, opens with a short and lovely sketch of a song called “Haven.” On that song, Shelley sings softly and warmly of “a woolen place to rest your head.” But “Haven” is only about a minute long. As soon as it starts, it ends.
“Landscape has always had a strong effect on my imagination and the way I hear music,” says Shelley. Shelley likes to talk about how deeply rooted her music is in the lineage of Kentucky music — in the collision of traditions that came slowly into place in the American South, forming into new traditions of its own. Shelley has a small circle of musicians whom she likes to record with, and a lot of those musicians — the music archivist and finger-picking guitar wizard Nathan Salsburg, the roots-music enigma Will Oldham — also come from Kentucky. They, too, represent mutations of that tradition. They’re just as bound to the landscape as she is. But Shelley didn’t record her new album in Kentucky. Instead, she and her collaborators decamped to Iceland, laying the new album down over five days at Reykjavík’s Greenhaus Studios.
Now: Like The River Loves The Sea is not an album about Iceland. If anything, it’s an album about Kentucky — or, more generally, an album about private rooms and internal spaces. And yet there’s a crystalline peace in the album, a sense of stillness that feels new and, maybe, specific to the place where Shelley made it. Shelley has always made quiet, soothing music. This decade, she’s racked up an impressive discography of it. Shelley recorded her last proper album, 2017’s self-titled affair, in Chicago, with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing. But on Like The River Loves The Sea, Shelley co-produces herself, splitting those duties with the English-born and Chicago-based guitarist James Elkington, another longtime collaborator. Shelley pretty much took her whole camp with her to Iceland: Elkington, Salsburg, Oldham. Shelley reunites with Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell, her old bandmates in the traditional-music trio Maiden Radio, on a few songs. Several Icelandic musicians join in, too. But for the most part, it’s a family affair.
It has to be. As ever, Shelley is making quiet, intimate music — music that carries a delicate sense of atmosphere. There’s real chemistry in the way Shelley and her collaborators interact — in the way Elkington and Salsburg’s guitars intertwine with Shelley’s, say, or in the way Oldham’s silk-sandpaper creak backs her voice up on a couple of choruses. Shelley sings the type of words you’d only use when talking to someone you know very, very well. Sometimes, those words are consoling: “When you come down hard, as you always do / I’m saving a part of me just to come down for you.” Sometimes, they’re crushing: “You were a little late that night / You were right about that / Leaned into my sympathies that you no longer had.” Sometimes, they’re some combination of the two: “Your eyes look so distant / But your arms are still so able.”
All this quiet, rapturous music works as a balm, a respite. When you want it to, Shelley’s music can fade into the background, becoming its own sort of rustic cricket-chirp ambience. But some of the songs on Like The River Loves The Sea— like “Coming Down For You,” or “The Fading” — are among the most softly devastating that Shelley has ever recorded. The latter starts out sounding like a mutually supportive breakup song: “When it breaks down / Oh babe, let’s try / To see the beauty in all the fading.” Eventually, though, it becomes something bigger. It becomes a song about accepting inevitable apocalypse: “And, oh, Kentucky stays in my mind / It’s sweet to be five years behind / That’s where I’ll be when the sea rises / Holding my dear friends and drinking wine.”
And maybe that’s the best way to hear Like The River Loves The Sea — as the musical complement to the dear friends and the wine, or as the thing that might make us feel a little better while everything comes apart. As long as the Kendall Roys of the world are winning, we’ll need it.
Like The River Loves The Sea is out 8/30 on No Quarter.