Joan Shelley Admires The Beauty In All The Fading

Sep 5, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 6:20 pm

There's been no shortage of great music by soft-spoken women playing acoustic guitar in 2019. But if you pay attention to one song in that vein this year, let it be "The Fading" from Joan Shelley's breathtaking latest album, Like The River Loves the Sea. It's an elegy tuned to the present moment hitting ominous notes of environmental dread, glaciers disappearing, things breaking down. You can tell that Shelley is rattled, but gracefully sidesteps despair on the refrain.

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To make her latest album, Shelley left her home in Kentucky and traveled to Iceland. She had a very specific intention: To build what she describes as "a haven for overstimulated heads in uncertain times."

Shelley's songs have the sturdy, classic construction of folk tunes. But even when the tone is serene, there's a distinctly modern restlessness lurking below the surface. Perspectives shift frequently in her songs. On "High on the Mountain," she contrasts the vistas of her home — sunlight on a stately mountains, beautiful, old trees — with the buses and cars of city streets to create a wistful reverie about a lover who's gone.

Each of Shelley's albums contain sparkling individual songs, but this is the first one that feels fully rooted in a place and also fully knit-together thematically. In these songs, the wisdom and the sweet air of open spaces becomes an abiding presence, a key character. As she laments worlds that have disappeared or are soon to, Shelley awakens listeners to something that's easily missed – the beauty in all the fading.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To make her latest album, singer-songwriter Joan Shelley left her home in Kentucky and traveled to Iceland. She had a very specific intention - to build what she describes as a haven for overstimulated brains in uncertain times. The result is called "Like The River Loves The Sea." Tom Moon has our review.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN SHELLEY SONG, "HAVEN")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: A song is a small thing, beautiful and ignorable at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVEN")

JOAN SHELLEY: (Singing) Haven woven, warm colors, woolen place to rest your head.

MOON: A woman singing quietly over acoustic guitar - been there, heard lots. But if you pay attention to one song in that vein this year, let it be "The Fading" from Joan Shelley's breathtaking new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FADING")

SHELLEY: (Singing) I saw the river, thick with mud, break through the banks and run. And I confess I liked it. I cheered the flood when the water hit the walls and won.

MOON: It's an elegy tune to the present moment, hitting ominous notes of environmental dread - glaciers disappearing, things breaking down. You can tell that Shelley is rattled. But check out the way she gracefully sidesteps despair here on the refrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FADING")

SHELLEY: (Singing) When it breaks down, oh, babe, let's try to see the beauty in all the fading - when it breaks down and stays step-high (ph), see the beauty in all the fading.

MOON: Joan Shelley songs have a sturdy, classic construction of folk tunes. But even when the tone is serene, there's a distinctly modern restlessness lurking below the surface. Perspectives shift frequently in her songs. On this one, she contrasts the vistas of her home - sunlight on a stately mountain, beautiful old trees - with the buses and cars of city streets to create a wistful reverie about a lover who's gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH ON THE MOUNTAIN")

SHELLEY: (Singing) Count the hours before I leave. Vultures perched in the evergreens, hiding from the buses, cars and streets. Can we stay here, where the air is sweet? I am high on the mountain.

MOON: This is Joan Shelley's fifth album. Each of them contains sparkling individual songs, but this is the first one that feels fully rooted in a place and also fully knit together thematically. In these songs, the wisdom and the sweet air of open spaces becomes an abiding presence, a key character. As she laments worlds that have disappeared or are soon to, Joan Shelley awakens listeners to something that's easily missed - the beauty in all the fading.

SHAPIRO: The latest from Joan Shelley is called "Like The River Loves The Sea." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING DOWN FOR YOU")

SHELLEY: (Singing) All the things the bird has got. He's got the locust and the oats. All the flowers and the birds sing, all the acid and smoke. And if we scorch some, would you call to me, sound the echo straight through? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.