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On 'The Spur,' Joan Shelley weighs what it takes to be human

On Joan Shelley's <em>The Spur</em>, even home's sparest comforts feel hard-won.
Mickie Winters
Courtesy of the artist
On Joan Shelley's The Spur, even home's sparest comforts feel hard-won.

It's tempting to fixate on the palliative effects of Joan Shelley's music; to liken it to cold compresses or warm breezes, lazy afternoons or headache remedies. But, while it's hard to overestimate the value of a piece of music that slows the blood on a stressful day, Shelley's songs are there to provide more than just comfort.

Across several albums, the Kentucky singer-songwriter has set her dusky, softly lived-in voice against spare acoustic arrangements. Her latest, The Spur, finds her expounding on country living, newly married life and the birth of her daughter. But life's joys are never far removed from the deeply worrying state — and fate — of the world: Shelley may sing of postcard-perfect countrysides and the soothing routines of home, but they're presented as escape hatches, respites, even hiding places. She knows the wind is howling outside, and where it's coming from.

On The Spur, even home's sparest comforts feel hard-won. In "Amberlit Morning," which balances Shelley's soft croon with the ever-wearier baritone of Bill Callahan, the references to nature's splendor — "the verdant shoot," "the sweet smell of clover coming in through the window" — are contrasted against conflicted memories of childhood. "As a child, I saw it all," she sings of the way animals lived and died on the farm where she was raised. Elsewhere, she issues a plainspoken line that feels like The Spur's central thesis: "It takes so much to be human."

It's natural to view Shelley's newest songs as reflections on pandemic life — and in particular the ways she might find solace in the routines of homebound isolation while raising a new baby with her partner and guitarist, Nathan Salsburg. But The Spur also delves into the connections that feed her beyond home's familiar walls and grassy expanses. The title track, in particular, finds joy in creative inspiration and even conflict: "All my friends and my enemies, too / I'm with you."

The Spur once again allows Shelley to work with kindred spirits: not only Salsburg, but also producer and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington, who's long since mastered the balance between cozy intimacy and breezy expansiveness. The occasional guest voice — Callahan in "Amberlit Morning," Meg Baird on "Forever Blues" and "Between Rock & Sky" — only fuels the sense of chemistry through community.

Still, for all their gentle set dressing, Shelley's lyrics keep coming back to that fragile balance between contentment and deep unease. "Forever Blues" views love through the prism of future heartache. "When the Light Is Dying" juxtaposes nature's beauty with humanity's darkness as she drives across the plains listening to Leonard Cohen's "You Want It Darker." "Between Rock & Sky" contemplates the fleeting nature of existence itself, while "Home" reflects on the lessons and scars of childhood.

At other points, Shelley's mood softens, as she explores the way love inspires and grounds us ("Like the Thunder") or offers a sense of calm to a restless partner ("Why Not Live Here," "Completely"). But the unsteady pursuit of equilibrium persists throughout; every note of comfort comes with an unspoken "in spite of..."

Sometimes, Shelley finds that balance through self-awareness — as in "Fawn," wherein she acknowledges that "I hide from the world because I don't know where I end." At other times, it comes from the core willingness to embrace doubt and uncertainty that informs so many forays into marriage and parenthood.

The Spur is, at its core, a steadying experience — its author's voice is too warm for it not to be — but the world's countless conflicts roil constantly under its placid surfaces. It's always searching, always examining, always thinking, never easy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)