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Julie Byrne’s third album The Greater Wings is an intimate yet expansive masterpiece rooted in loss and grief

"The Greater Wings"

Release date: 07 July 2023
Julie Byrne - The Greater Wings cover
05 July 2023, 09:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

Julie Byrne's previous albums have built a dedicated cult following.

It's somewhat doubtful whether the tight confines of cultdom can contain the simultaneously intimate and expansive The Greater Wings, however: equal parts steadfast resilience and mournful ache, the American songwriter’s third album builds up such an emotionally resonant, hypnotic pull that the days when Byrne’s music is a treat for the select few who are in on the secret might well be numbered.

For example, consider the title track – propelled by Byrne's finger-picked acoustic guitar, it instantly sounds like an established part of the classic, bruised yet unbowed singer-songwriter repertoire, especially once a discrete string arrangement enters the frame to help the song's indelible melody soar ever higher. Soar is the key word – although extra ingredients are applied sparsely, analogue synths, strings and harp infuse the percussion-free proceedings of The Greater Wings with a warmly enveloping ambience and majestic glow.

Recordings for the album started in 2020 and continued gradually until Byrne's long-standing musical partner and producer Eric Littmann passed away unexpectedly in June 2021, prompting Byrne to put these songs away. It’s our good fortune that work could eventually resume. The Greater Wings joins Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell and Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the ranks of minimalist yet multi-layered, masterfully realised albums that are unmistakably rooted in loss and grief but ultimately transcend their painfully personal origins by blooming into life-affirming, universal beauty and resonance.

The songs on The Greater Wings often comprise of flashes from the life of a touring musician and memories from different stages of relationships. However, Byrne's writing allows for different interpretations. Lines such as "You're always in the band / Forever underground" could be read as a depiction of the tireless ethos of a musical lifer, compelled to commit fully to music far from the mainstream regardless of the outcomes. It could just as well be a eulogy to a cherished collaborator whose absence from the stage and the studio is sorely felt.

"Moonless" (complete with a gracefully gliding, grand melody worthy of Judee Sill or her contemporary disciples a la Weyes Blood) comes across as a declaration of devotion, although Byrne could actually be shrugging off an indecisive or unavailable partner. The sighed acknowledgement "You were the family I chose" on "Summer Glass" (which sounds like a confessional singer-songwriter crashing a particularly kosmische harmonia session) works equally as a musical thank you note to likeminded travellers and a grief-stricken farewell. The unfailingly strong material culminates in "Hope's Return" and "Death Is The Diamond": the former casts Byrne's strummed acoustic guitar as an insistently sturdy anchor for its propulsive ascension ever upwards, whilst the latter's slow-burn and stately piano chords seem to hang heavy in the air long after the album has finished playing.

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