Joan Shelley: The Spur review – timeless and vital Americana
Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has a dulcet voice and a mellifluous way about her Americana. But her work – informed, not bound, by folk and country – is often more clear-eyed and unsentimental than its prettiness suggests. “I drank their milk and wore their hide,” she observes typically on Amberlit Morning, an understated rural meditation off The Spur, her latest outing. Bill Callahan guests; a magnificent key change unsettles even as it impresses.
Everything upended between 2019 and 2021, the arc of Shelley’s lucid seventh album. Shelley was consciously putting down roots after a lifetime of touring when lockdown hit. Tending goats and chickens, she also found time to reproduce and marry – a stark contrast of domestic hope and joy offsetting the tumult in the world – and record The Spur.
Forever Blues keeps up her uncommon way with words – “Do I lease you always, is the rent coming due?” – while Like the Thunder, about new love, is both traditional-sounding and laced with carnality. Human character studies alternate with vignettes from nature throughout. But the album peaks with Between Rock & Sky, a timeless track that raises a glass “to the ones who made us and those for whom we’ll die”. This is a record full of elegant consolation, but one that refuses to patronise the listener.