There’s few acts that can make sparse folk-pop interesting these days, and Tomberlin proves it’s all about what you do in the background. Though her latest album may not be that much of a step forward for the genre, there’s something intriguing about Sarah Beth Tomberlin’s way with patient writing. While it’s easy to get caught up in the drawn-out moments of the album, listening back unveils a depth of writing (along with subtle arrangements by Owen Pallett) that’s really something.
As heart-melting layers grow over the guitars on “Any Other Way” Tomberlin’s own story grows more sorrowful and heavy. Through the slow-burning emotional rollercoaster, this mood-piece sets things off with a surprising amount of pain and subdued choruses. “Untitled 1” comes in a lot more direct, and lets each little addition to the sound feel weighted and poignant. Though it certainly makes you wait for any semblance of a pop feeling, Sarah Beth’s vocals really are worth it.
With its much more ambient use of strings and organs, “Tornado” sweeps in patiently and lets the voice play as much of a part in the chords as the synths. While it almost feels like an interlude in its short rounds of writing, there’s a powerful heft to each roar of feedback here. Strings tumble over each other on “You Are Here” while the subtle shifts in speed suggest a kind of messy headspace that comes with the song’s rough emotional state. Admittedly this makes initial listens a bit jarring but over time this track proves to be one of the album’s most wonderfully experimental and thought out.
“A Video Game” takes similar turns to many of the song’s on the record, as its spiralling guitars let Sarah Beth play with the sounds around it. If you can hold your attention until the song’s second half, the growing production notes really infect the song in great and stirring ways. In her most structured piece, “I’m Not Scared” hits soaring highs as every tempered verse opens up to devastating choruses. By letting herself really touch on a classical writing frame, Tomberlin will really touch people with this track.
By “Seventeen” the album does certainly feel a little predictable in terms of its samey writing and stretched song structures. With this in mind however, Tomberlin definitely plays around with strings and other tricks in the margins of her songs more as the record goes on. “Self-Help” on the other hand starts to play with more effects and electronic tones than anything else on the record. This dramatic shift framed around her core writing voice makes this track a real joy, especially through all the ecstatic bursts of life in the instrumentation.
Down in the ether of “Untitled 2” Sarah Beth’s voice is barely intelligible, but just enough to hit the right emotions for the track. While there’s a similar meandering direction to the track, it’s refreshing to hear Tomberlin at least taking chances with her tones. “February” plays with a lot more dynamics than most of the songs on the record, as Tomberlin stops and starts with plenty of energy behind each new push. While it may be a testing listen, this sense of volume makes for a fun and engaging listen.
Words by Owen Maxwell