[Rusted Blue; 2013]
The more autobiographical an artist, the more we, the audience, get to see them grow up right before our eyes. Such is the case with Alela Diane who first gained attention with her debut Pirate’s Gospel back in 2004, the 21-year old Portland native singing innocent songs of companionless pigeons and Pirate’s prayers of “Yo Ho Ho!”
In 2009 she came into her own with To Be Still, an album that combined her tranquil vocals with lyrics that focused on the splendors of nature. The combination of the vivid imagery and the pure wonderment in her voice results in an album that would make John Muir blush. For me, the music stirs the humbling and exhilarating experience that is venturing into the wild. On the album, Alela seems to be at peace with the world, an inner hope flowing out with each note, pure and calming like the mighty Columbia. The production on both early albums was warm and quaint, as if you are sitting in the corner of a log cabin while Alela and her dad, who sang and played on both albums, serenade you by the fireplace.
A lot has changed in four years. On her latest release, About Farewell, all the naivety, tenderness, and optimism about the world is gone. Instead, we are left with a somber, more mature Alela, reeling after her real-life divorce from Tom Bevitori (who also happened to be in her band for the To Be Still follow-up, Wild Divine). Musically, About Farewell shows Alela returning to the sparse production that made her early work so great and got abandoned on Wild Divine, but the once angelic voice now sounds bitter and lost. If To Be Still was Alela’s Ladies of the Canyon then About Farewell is her Blue, a break-up album with tragic lyrics and more mature songwriting.
The girl who once turned to nature for answers now seems to be relying more and more on the bottle with mentions of whiskey bottles, drunken proposals, and late night drunk dials, all reminders that heartbreak can tear down even the most optimistic. The album plays out a lot like the movie Blue Valentine with the story of the rise and fall of their relationship presented out-of-order and fragmented. As a listener, you are tasked with the job of trying to pick up the pieces left behind, and once assembled, the end results hit deep like any great break-up album should. The story begins near the end of the album with Hazel Street, a haunting recollection of their early days, spirits still singing in the shadows as Alela paints images of their troubled courtship. This is a common theme on the album – their relationship was doomed from the start.
Throughout the album you can hear Alela struggling with her role in the downfall of the relationship. There is a lot of finger-pointing, but there are also times when she openly admits to deception and manipulation. While break-up albums are commonplace, About Farewell is far from the common trope of “Woe is me.” There are no good guys, no winners, and there is no happy ending. The album does have one brief moment where Alela seems to be finally finding peace with everything. Near the end of “Lost Land,” she coincidentally takes solace out in the wild, lost and in search of some semblance of hope.
I was never a fan of the 2011 album Alela Diane & the Wild Divine which coincidentally is the one album recorded with her now ex-husband. In hindsight, I wonder if I could sense the couple’s problems in the music. On the album, Alela never sounded comfortable, the lyrics lacked the passion on the prior two albums, and the album as a whole lacked the emotional levity that drew me to her music so long ago. Unfortunately, it took heartbreak to bring Alela back to her strength. She may not be the hopeful wanderer of ten years ago, but she’s grown older and wiser through her misery.