Islands is the sophomore album from New York-based artist Erin Durant, and the latest release on the reliably excellent Keeled Scales. The album builds on Durant’s debut, Blueberry Mountain, taking that record’s minimal piano-based folk songs and nurturing them into warm and rich experiences.
This has a lot to do with collaboration, particularly with Kyp Malone (of TV on the Radio), who not only produced the album but proved a significant creative influence and played a number of instruments on the record. The result is Durant’s signature folk music elevated to another level without losing the stark and communicative core, what we described previously as “a collision of the vast and the intimate, weaving focused, personal vignettes into something that explores far grander themes, a complex mosaic dedicated to the nuances of trauma and loss.”
Erin Durant has lived in New York for over a decade, though it’s hard to imagine these songs being conceived amongst such a bustling metropolis. Durant’s music is tied to the American landscape, organic images of dusty plains and sticky southern humidity, more the America of collective consciousness than how it exists in twenty-first century cities. Take opener ‘Rising Sun’, a gentle sun-dappled folk song that sees Durant’s mind wander to her original home. “There is a house in New Orleans,” she sings, “a California bungalow that I’ve never seen, it’s painted green, sits on Ma’s street and takes me someplace that I’ve never been.”
In many ways, the song sets the album’s thematic tone. Durant’s words and observations hold an uncanny juxtaposition, on one hand quotidian and undramatic, the thoughts of one little person in a big world, but with a plainspoken earnestness and unfussy clarity that allows us, the listener, a glimpse within. The effect is to turn things inside out, and remind us that even the smallest individual contains uncharted wilderness. Indeed, that seems to be the ultimate purpose for Durant. For her, music is a vehicle for exploring these depths. As she explains in a feature with The Line of Best Fit:
Songwriting is a place to put all my thoughts and experiences; a place to focus my interests, desires, longings. It can hold all my inspirations and interests […] music is the form that I can best express myself through.
But Islands is not a simple work of autobiography. Durant’s approach is far more indirect and interesting. Loosely painted imagery does as much of the narrative lifting as any of the bona fide storytelling, a reminder that there is more than one way to tell a story, including not telling any kind of story at all. The timeless quality of ‘Highway Blue’ is too familiar to be wholly personal, Durant not pouring out her soul but linking its energy to some wider flow that’s long blown across the country. It sounds inherently personal yet connected intrinsically to older traditions, set neither Now or Then but within the spirit that unites the two.
The effect is clear on ‘Good Ol Night’, a track that walks the line which traces from cowboy card bars right through to the ostentatious neon whirr of modern casinos, an age-old American game of luck and dreams and second-guessing. There’s a bravado that’s at once heartfelt and brittle—something like a whirlwind, something like Marilyn Monroe—as though to stop would be to unravel altogether.
Likewise, “[‘Take a Load Off’] is a meditation on the curse of the traveler,” we described in a preview of the softly gleaming single that takes on the Western mystique of moving on, “the dizzying rootless roll just some form of escape, but attempts to settle feel equally transient, as though each experience is merely a temporary alleviation of a deeper, nameless driver that can be forgotten but never extracted.” The piano and Durant’s voice don’t sound nearly as weary as that may sound though, remaining bright and perky throughout, as though rolling with the punches the road serves up.
After the haunted instrumental ‘Winterlude’, where poltergeistic discordance tinkers with the wistful warmth of old memories, the title track takes loss head on. Death looms large, ideas of letting go permeating a song concerned with returning home, as though only in leaving does the significance of something become apparent. There’s an inexorable glide to tragedy within the track’s very fabric, though one tempered with the elation of having lived at all. “This life feels long if I live another day,” Durant sings on ‘Another Town’, closing the record on a typically patient note, swaying over the slow thump of percussion like a breeze-borne flag.
Both songs capture the conflicted blend of joy and sadness at the heart of Islands and the American folk tradition too. It’s some relative of nostalgia that stems from things older and more permanent than ourselves, as though even in the wonder of the present moment does a sliding loss emerge, some mortal thing colouring the scene as the landscape goes through its ancient motions, unperturbed by our passing transience.
Islands is out now via Keeled Scales and you can get it from the Erin Durant Bandcamp page.