Diane gives away a lot more with a lot less…
The world, one might reasonably observe, is not presently parched by shortages of either ruminative heartbreak ballads or acoustic troubadours from the Pacific north-west. In parts of that region, indeed, such creatures are thicker on the ground than the buffalo before the white man came, grazing in vast gingham-clad herds, their whimsical lo-fi lowing audible for miles.
About Farewell, Alela Diane’s fourth album, might therefore seem an unenthralling prospect. It is, unmistakably and unabashedly, a collection of introspective love-gone-wrong laments, composed in the choppy wake of divorce; the titles which weep from the sleeve include “The Way We Fall”, “Nothing I Can Do”, “I Thought I Knew” and “Before The Leaving”. And Alela Diane is, unmistakably and unabashedly, a quirky singer-songwriter from Portland: she personally drew and sewed the sleeves of her first self-released albums, is generally photographed in impeccable vintage apparel, is by her own admission given to hobbies including “collecting old things to arrange in the house” and “making soup”, and dwells in Oregon’s hipster Jerusalem with a cat named Bramble Rose.
In such circumstances, the sensible reaction is generally to gather some perishing vegetables and limber up the throwing arm, but About Farewell swiftly neutralises and overwhelms scepticism. It helps that Diane is a proper singer, as opposed to a twee warbler – though this will not be news to owners of her previous works, which demonstrate a voice as easy with Gillian Welch-ish croons as it is with Sandy Denny-esque trills.
It helps more that Diane relates and arranges these confessionals with a commendably light, cool touch. While heartbreak can indeed inspire great art, it is also a peculiarly personal calamity, one which will never be half as interesting to the world as it is to you, not that you’ll realise this at the time. There’s a distance, even a diffidence, about these songs – which, rather counter-intuitively, makes them all the more gripping.
The exemplary generosity with which the departing paramour is waved off in the title track is characteristic: “I heard somebody say/That the brightest lights cast the biggest shadows/So honey, I’ve got to let you go.” The music behind this leave-taking is also emblematic. “About Farewell” is – this observation applies to both song and album – as pretty and brittle as sculpted icing, a confection of gentle guitar arpeggios and mourning flutes representing a substantial scaling down from the more orthodox backing band she fielded on her previous outing, 2011’s Alela Diane & Wild Devine. The approach suits her, and it suits these songs, which remain understated even when ambitious. The five-minute/two-movement “The Way We Fall” segues unobtrusively from Suzanne Vega-ish deadpan observation to a country-folk ballad which would not disgrace any given Emmylou Harris album. “Nothing I Can Do” is a terse, unsentimental rebuke to the folly of attempting to save someone from themselves. “I Thought I Knew” is nonetheless a highlight for its brevity, the tune swooping gracefully across a backdrop of sobbing strings, the words a bleakly amusing summary of the struggle between optimism and experience: “I took to the sky/With that knowing, sinking feeling”.
Diane’s judgement is not altogether infallible. “Hazel Street” feels rather less than it might have been, the melody keeping her voice on too short a leash, swerving away briefly seems a glorious opportunity for a soaring middle eight. Closing track, “Rose & Thorn” is a disappointingly ineffectual conclusion, limply thrashing what must be the most overused metaphor in the lexicon of romantic vexation. But these mis-steps are so jarring largely because they’re so unusual. “About Farewell” is a gentle, rueful, often beautiful record. She should get divorced more often.
Why pare the sound back so far?
It was very circumstantial. I made the record while I was going through a divorce, and my ex-husband was in my band. I didn’t want to share the process of making the record with everyone we’d been touring with.
How nervous or otherwise were you about revealing so much about something so personal?
I wrote most of it before I left my husband, hiding in a corner of our house singing these songs, praying he couldn’t hear them. It was like the lyrics were telling me my own truth about how I was feeling – almost like the songs were telling me I needed to get a divorce. The songs were part of the process of realising I had to leave.
Has your ex-husband heard it?
He has. But only very recently. We’ve managed to remain friends, which is a real accomplisment. He said it was hard to hear but he said he was proud of me. He likes it. He’s in a country band in Portland, called Denver, and a lot of theirs are about me. And you can hear it in his songs – clearly he wanted out, as well.
You should do a duets album. There’s a vacancy, now that George has gone to join Tammy.
We did discuss a double A-side. But I think we were joking.
Did you find making the album cathartic?
Definitely. Some people might not believe that the songs are as autobiographical as they are. You have to let go, let the stories be what they’re going to be for people to gather what they will. But when I sing them, they still hurt.
INTERVIEW: ANDREW MUELLER