Alela Diane – Cusp

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The last time we crossed paths with Alela Diane was about five years ago. About Farewell was a bleak, but beautiful album that chronicled in no small detail the decline and fall of a relationship. Then, there was no looking forward, only back. And with a mix of both regret and resentment. Now, though, things are very different. With a new partner and two young children to boot, the focus is straight ahead. “I’d rather be an albatross, flying high, Than in the tail winds, looking back at what I left behind”. And the theme is unashamedly one of family. A new family. “She took shelter in my womb, And I felt her tiny feet, Kick me from the inside”. Creatively, of course, the fear is that domestic tranquility will always crowd out the ever popular tortured artist effect. And, for sure, this is not an album for the angry, the restless, or even the mildly irritated. But it is a very honest album nonetheless. Things come to a head on ‘Never Easy’, which describes how motherhood has led Alela Diane to reevaluate her relationship with her own mother. “I didn’t know how much you loved me, I didn’t know until I had my own little daughter”. It’s a very poignant admission. And it’s a sign that in its own very different way, Cusp is as revealing as its predecessor from five years back. Let’s hope we cross paths again sometime soon.

Welcome to part 2 of the best albums of 2013, AKA the miserable 5.

Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards – Blindspot

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The gravel-voiced Gollum of gloom returns with an album so downer-sounding it’s positively uplifting. After all, at least you get to realise that someone out there is worse off than you. While poor old Dan and his Coastguards give the impression they’re about to hit the rocks any day soon, they tell their stories with such a delicate beauty that you can’t help but want to throw them a lifeline. Sure, they’d probably drop it anyway.

Mark Kozelek & Desertshore

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Just when you’ve managed to come to terms with the ultra-miserabilist themes of the new Mark Kozelek album, doesn’t he go and release a second one. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you? If it wasn’t so freaking affecting. If it didn’t sound so darn beautiful. Well, you’d have reason to be resentful. Instead, you put ‘Brothers’ on repeat and wonder how anyone write a song quite so emotional.

Alela Diane – About Farewell

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Alela Diane writes about the pain of breaking up. The anger of having wasted part of a life. And the excitement of starting afresh. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. There’s plenty of unfinished business at the end of this particular journey. It’s tough to listen to a first-hand account of the break-up of a marriage. But hopefully the process of writing was cathartic and with luck we might yet get to hear the part about starting afresh.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern

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Jason Isbell is an interloper. He’s got over his troubles. Kicked his destructive habits. But, thankfully for the rest of us, he can remember just enough of his dark days to tell some great stories. And he recounts them with tremendous verve and panache. This is a songwriter at the absolute top of his game. An album full of great songs with wonderful hooks and lovely arrangements.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

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There are times on this album when Neko sounds really angry. She’s had a difficult time recently and sometimes it shows. When she sings about murdering a man by shooting him through his jelly eye, you start to smile politely and back away. But don’t go too far. There’s plenty here to keep you amused and entertained.

Alela Diane – About Farewell

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Like break-up albums? You’ll love this one. Ten songs all dealing with Alela’s break up with husband-guitarist, Tom Bevitori. It’s so focused, it’s almost a concept album. There’s a chronological element to it. The sense that things are ending. The knowledge that it’s finally over. The looking back misty-eyed. The packing up and moving away. There are no good times times at the beginning. There’s no catharsis at the end. This is just an album about the bad bits. And it’s all the more moving because of that. The observations are so detailed that at times there’s almost a Mrs Dalloway quality to some of the writing: “The four white walls in every damn hotel, A light by the bed, Stains on the floor, And it’s here I will wait out the storm, Killing time on the fringes again, Before the leaving”. But while the lyrics tell the story, they’re only a part of the experience. The songs are fragile, quiet, but they sound great, fully realised. Nothing really comes close a full-on band sound, but the basic palette of guitar and voice is rarely unaccompanied. The backing varies between piano, cello, violins, double-tracked vocals, slight percussion, another guitar, and plenty more. And it varies from one song to the next. There’s no formula. And then there’s the voice. Alela Diane’s vocals are some of the strongest around. Right across the range, there’s a Neko Case power to them. But she’s restrained. Here, there’s absolutely no showing off and she could if she wanted to. Instead, the vocals just emphasise the power of writing, the sadness of the situation, the beauty of the music. If there’s a weakness, then it’s the sense that things are left hanging at the end. There’s no resolution. No excoriating kiss-off. No reconciliation – fat chance. No sense of moving on. But maybe that’s the point. Time is the only healer. And it sounds like there’s still plenty of time to go.

Pitchfork review

The Line of Best Fit review

Pop Matters review