Julie Byrne The Greater Wings Review: Light and darkness intertwine for stunning meditation on grief and love

Written in love, completed in grief, New York songwriter Julie Byrne creates a deeply moving valedictory love letter

Julie Byrne

by Andrew Male  |
Published on

Julie Byrne


The Greater Wings

Ghostly International

WHEN MOJO first interviewed Julie Byrne, back in 2017, she’d just released her debut full-length LP, Rooms With Walls And Windows, a compilation of her earlier cassette releases. Those close-miked, hushed and mysterious folk songs felt almost intrusively intimate, abstracted tales of home life and heartbreak that the then 27-year-old New-York-born singer had composed amidst harsh Chicago winters, following “a really intense separation from someone that I loved”. Byrne swiftly released a follow-up, 2017’s Not Even Happiness, which proved to be the mirror image of Rooms…, an exquisite collection of love songs dedicated to her producer, collaborator and partner Eric Littmann. In 2018 the two began work on Byrne’s third LP, touring throughout America and Europe, recording in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Then, in June 2021, Littmann died suddenly and, as Byrne writes in her linernotes, “in the cataclysm of [his] death The Greater Wings would not open again until January 2022.” Written in love yet completed in grief by a songwriter attuned to “what death does not take from me”, The Greater Wings therefore stands as both love letter and elegy and encompasses the deeply held emotions of both.

It’s a mood established by the haunting opening title track, a song in which love and loss, the life of a person now “forever underground”, is felt in “the tilt of the planet [the] panorama of the valley”, Jake Falby’s string arrangement and Nadia Hulett’s wordless backing vocals lending the track a rhapsodic weightlessness. That sense of love and grief as a heightened state is continued in Portrait Of A Clear Day, where Byrne confronts loss as something “timeless and wide in the middle of the night… like the world unmade.” A comparison point might be the sensory imagery of William Blake, Byrne singing about how she now sees her surroundings anew, as part of a cruel psychological awakening. As with Blake, there is something rhapsodic in Byrne’s words, a desire to go “further into the moment” as she sings amidst the euphoric kosmische pitter-patter of Summer Glass, the power of her words underlined by the zephyrlike sensuousness of her voice, Littmann’s arpeggiated Prophet Rev, Marilu Donovan’s harp and the empty-room reverb that surrounds them. Yet there is also a dangerous darkness here, one that intrudes on Lightning Comes Up From The Ground and spreads throughout the LP’s final quintet of songs, Byrne’s nylon-string finger-picked guitar and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s shimmering modular synths threaded through imagery of night screams, bloody sheets and terrains of fire. With the final track, the glacially beautiful Death Is The Diamond, Byrne sings of “carrying your death wish back into the arms of this rare life”. It’s an enigmatic statement of valediction that contains the promise of both endurance and cessation, an uncertain but fitting end for an LP that exists simultaneously in both light and darkness.

The Greater Wings by Julie Byrne is out 7 July via Ghostly International

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