The apocalypse looms above Shelley’s slice of Eden, making paradise all the more peaceful.
There are times so sweet that the nostalgia just spools out. The sepia haze that usually accompanies misremembered images is suddenly there, filtering a present perfected. And those moments of clarity become all the more beautiful and painful, since we know they are ephemeral. Joan Shelley has captured the pure essence of that bittersweet indulgence on Like the River Loves the Sea. The apocalypse looms above her slice of Eden, making paradise all the more peaceful.
Shelley’s last album was mostly guitar duets between herself and fellow Louisville maestro Nathan Salsburg. She stumbled through romance, alternating between confidence and cowardice. Like the River Loves the Sea is more expansive, but in a pastoral, cozy sense. It sounds like it was recorded live in her living room, friends popping in to chat and play. Which is incredible, as Shelley and her Louisville troupe recorded in Reykjavik. But the homespun feeling is absolute, like a quilt was wrapped around the sounds. The string arrangements are delicate, subtle. They never evolve into the full Disney sweep, instead just accenting slight moments, and they are all the more glorious for it. It never bursts, never shreds, it just blooms.
But her choice to work in Reykjavik comes at a horrific, perfect time to accent Like a River. Iceland recently put up a memorial for the first glacier their country lost to the climate crisis. The eulogy to Okjökull reads “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The calm must always be met with a storm, as these are the elements Shelley conjures. Last album she was musing on what she would do if those “storms never came,” now she sees the thunderheads rolling in, and attempts to hold onto the world as she experiences it now, before the floods begin. Like the River holds a deep well not of quiet nostalgia, but of what will be gone soon. It does not wallow, but melancholy is impossible to outrun. She mentions offhand, “when it breaks down,” as a passing view of reality. Though more relaxed outwardly than her last album, the turmoil hasn’t migrated. The anxiety is just standing at the edges, jittering in the rafters.
The rising breath of strings on “The Fading” flows behind Shelley’s sayonara to the world. “It’s sweet to be five years behind/ That’s where I’ll be/ When the seas rises/ Holding my dear friends and drinking wine.” Like the rest of the album, the music feels weightless, but that escape comes from an undying belief that her idyllic homeland will be washed away. Even when she focuses in on romantic detours, the dread of the world creeps in. The bouncing rhythm of “Stay All Night” is a lustful romp, but underpins Like the River’s overwhelming search for solace. Whether in a lover’s arms, in the grasp of wine or across a campfire singalong, Shelley and her friends are looking restlessly for flight.
It isn’t so much hope or a traditional strength lending itself to the album. There is acceptance, and Shelley does find something to love there. “You were the stronger one I knew/ Now I lay on the ground I choose.” She seems to admit a sort of defeat, but in this heavenly cocoon of song, it instead leads to visions of rest, a brief dream to heal in. When she stridently sings “My love is not through with you,” it could be a lover, but it is also for her friends, her world, a future she will fight for. Of course, a haven is only a haven in comparison. And there are constant blotches of darkness intruding on this paradise. That’s what makes gorgeous. And what makes the fight to keep it Eden all the more glorious