Joan Shelley’s music might sound unassuming on first listen, led by the reels of a breezy clean-tone acoustic guitar. But the Kentucky singer/songwriter’s prescient songs have a sharp and subtle power, cutting to the quick. “Every child sees it/every child knows/as a child, I saw it all,” Shelley candidly reveals on “Amberlit Morning,” giving a sense of both the focus and the timeless vantage of The Spur, her latest full-length release. Incisive moments like this emerge throughout the record, where Shelley’s songs have never felt richer or wiser.
The Spur was written and produced across the full two-year arc of the pandemic to date. Some of the songs date back to fall 2019 and early 2020, with memories of van tours and the open road (“When the Light Is Dying”) in the then-immediate rearview mirror. The “pandemic record” trope may feel hackneyed by now, but The Spur, emerging gracefully and at its own pace from Shelley’s farm in Kentucky, feels both present and uniquely out of time amid countless other Albums of the Moment. Its songs measure time in resultantly fluid ways: stretching or squashing moments with a vivid, filmic aplomb; old stories and lived experiences replayed creakily at variable speeds. Some songs are beautiful, fully present scenes, recounted with Leonard Cohen-esque poetic detail; others weave much longer threads, dig deeper hooks. Though Shelley and the folklorist Nathan Salsburg—Shelley’s partner and creative collaborator—became parents during the pandemic, The Spur isn’t expressly concerned with the immediate preoccupations of parenthood. Instead, it digests the present through recursion, mining age-old sounds and various bits of past for insight and context. The Spur feels old-fashioned, but the images Shelley projects are hardly out of focus.
Unique to The Spur, and new to Shelley’s oeuvre, are the record’s colorful production and arrangements, led by friend/musical collaborator James Elkington. Shelley has historically kept her sound to a deliberately limited palette, and much of her early repertoire thrived on simplicity. It’s easy to assume that handing over the songs—a first in Shelley’s long-established process—might muddy up the material. This is the case on a couple of numbers (“Bolt,” “Like the Thunder”) where the arrangements feel overblown, puncturing otherwise delicate moments. But on the whole Elkington’s contributions and the new orchestral textures perform some vital work, opening up the record early on (“Forever Blues”; The Spur’s title track) and expanding Shelley’s lens—particularly in the pointed orchestration of “Breath for the Boy,” an austere but ornate centerpiece of the record, with lyrics co-written by British author Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers).
A pair of guest vocal features also amplify The Spur’s revelatory moments. On the aforementioned “Amberlit Morning,” Shelley invites Bill Callahan in through the front door for a duet; their blend is fresh and intoxicating, moving in an unpredictable twin course through sunrise home-movie scenes. “Between Rock and Sky” achieves something similar in its purity, with Shelley alongside Meg Baird’s faint but pointed harmonies. Their joint vocals may not be the album’s boldest gesture, but they’re essential to “Rock and Sky”’s strength—less than two minutes long, it’s the album’s most eternal-sounding track.
Shelley’s affinity for vernacular music has imbued her songbook an assured, familiar vibe. But her immersion in the vast archives of old-time music has also had other macro impacts too, namely, the prolific speed with which Shelley records and releases her material. Shelley has humbly released seven full-length albums (and one live record) in 10 years. There’s something to be said for committing to this anthologizing approach: returning to the studio, dutifully and unfailingly, to archive one’s own spark at intervals, a personal folklorist. Shelley’s songs are digestible on their own, and, as a contiguous collection, The Spur is a pleasing, cathartic listen. But the record resonates on a deep enough level that it’s rewarding to consider The Spur as part of something more abundant and unbroken, more than of its time—just one humble link in the canon of Shelley’s continuing work.
Label: No Quarter
Ben Easton is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He's a member/producer of the rock quartet The Academy Blues Project, with whom he has made six records, and plays Live Piano Karaoke in-residence at Sid Gold's Request Room, New York City's flagship modern piano bar. Beyond Treble, Easton is a staff writer at Cover Me Songs, the web publication devoted to cover music of all genres.