Alela Diane ‘About Farewell’ – Review

12 Aug

The few classic ‘break up’ albums are SO good that they make it very difficult for any newcomers to compete. What can the likes of Alela Diane say that Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ryan Adams, Paul Simon, Elliot Smith or The Mountain Goats haven’t already definitively said? But Diane has given it a good go anyway, as any artist worth their weight should. She’s also done a pretty good job of finding her own voice in a crowded field.

Break up records are usually overwhelmingly raw, fragile and emotional. Clear minded writers can go potty, so overcome with grief that they forget their training. Even the cool-headed Bob Dylan became an angry, bitter, resentful wreck in the mid seventeen after his divorce. Alas, Diane doesn’t hit the traditional road bumps. ‘About Farewell’ is stunning in its precision and almost clinical in its attention to detail – to the extent that you start to wonder if it’s a little too calculated to be sincere. It’s never as over-indulgent or draining as even better records of this type are.

‘About Farewell’ begins as it goes on, with a clear and crisp description. ‘I drove you home that autumn day, to your mother’s house / the paint was old, the dogs were barking / I sat upon the rug.’ These are stories told from a safe distance and a lot of time is spent setting the scene. Diane is less a song-writer, or even poet, and more a reporter. She is not fond of lush imagery; metaphors and similes are hard to find here, instead she relies on sturdy adjectives and concrete nouns. ‘It was an Indian summer, wildfires were burning’ she sings on the album’s standout ‘The Way We Fall.’ ‘I Can still evoke the stale smoke of his cigarettes’ she says, remembering the last time she was intimate with her husband. She picks out quite mundane details that still make an impression.

On all but the nostalgic opening track, Diane describes herself as the initiator of the break up. ‘I’ve got to let you go’ she sings on ‘About Farewell’. It’s interesting that she paints herself in a fairly unsympathetic, even harsh light, and yet it makes for an interesting twist when most break up songs are sung from the victim’s perspective. On ‘Before the Leaving’ she describes how she revved herself up to leave her husband. She paints a picture of the hotels, roads, trucks, seats, curtains – normal objects that are cast in a sad shadow by the prospect of what’s to come. Diane has been very open in interviews about her personal life and what she’s revealed can’t help but colour your interpretation of these songs; and yet just enough is left to the imagination.

Diane worked on the record mostly on her own, which adds a sparseness that matches the thematic isolation. Her backing band are notable by their absence; the only voices you hear are hers and most songs feature only one or two instruments. Sad piano here, delicate guitar there, some atmospheric percussion or string arrangements if you’re lucky. It works to the extent that it makes for a dark and appropriately melancholy musical experience, but it does leave the record feeling a touch two dimensional. A bit more variety would perhaps make this an album you would want to listen to time and time again, as it is you feel you have sufficiently explored it after a few close listens.

No, there’s no hiding the fact that the lyrics are what make this such a worthwhile record. Thoughtful and considered, they are a world away from the Taylor Swift school of heartbreak that has dominated pop music for years. My favourite break-up song is ‘Most of the Time’ by Dylan, a song that doesn’t indulge in the stormy aftermath of his divorce but picks up years afterwards, at a point in Dylan’s life when he was happy ‘most of the time’ – the implication being that from time to time he was still pretty sad. The song is great for what it implies and for what it leaves out rather than what it knocks you over the head with. And that’s the same quality that makes ‘About Farewell’ such a good record. Diane doesn’t knock you over the head with her emotions and she doesn’t spill her heart all over the carpet. It quietly, but surely, finds truth and subtly reveals it. ‘Said what I needed to say I guess’ she sings on album closer, and that’s exactly what she’s done. It’s what she doesn’t say that makes this such an impressive record.

8/10

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