Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Universe Wrapped In Skin (A Review of "Venus")

I think that one of the most difficult things in this life is being vulnerable with people. Vulnerability is terrifying – you are exposed, emotionally naked, and others are free to either accept you or reject you. The potential for rejection is terrifying and the potential for rejecting after baring your soul to another human being – those raw, tender parts of you – is even more so. But that’s why vulnerability is also one of the bravest things any of us can do in this life. It takes immense courage to look other people in the eye, strip down and say: “This… this is who I am.” That’s exactly what Joy Williams does in her latest album, Venus. And I think that’s incredibly courageous of her. I’m not a musician, but I am an artist and I realize how nervous I get whenever I write something incredibly personal and share it with others. Will they judge me? Will they accept me to my face and scorn me behind my back? Will this alter how they see me from now on? Will they still love me?

Joy chooses to share the most vulnerable, still-healing parts of her in this album and that’s not just incredibly brave – it also makes the entire album powerful and poignant without being heavy-handed. Too often, so many artists try too hard to sound genuine in their music. But not Joy. She’s real. She’s unguarded. And she’s completely and totally honest in Venus, which is what makes it such a stellar album. So let’s talk about it, track-by-track as I pinpoint some musical and lyrical themes throughout the piece and discuss more about how vulnerability actually makes us stronger.

“Before I Sleep”

I’ve got miles and miles to go before I sleep
Before I can feel anything
Before I’m free

The first track on Venus is called “Before I Sleep,” and it’s loosely based on the Robert Frost poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” That’s a poem that you study when you’re in a high school AP Language class (if you were me, in high school) and it’s often one that is brought back up in college. Why? Because it’s an iconic poem (even if it isn’t, admittedly, my favorite poem) due to the final stanza. There’s this desperation and longing and isolation in Frost’s poem and those feelings are definitely present in this Joy Williams track as well. It’s very haunting – the equivalent of a snowy evening in the desolate woods, and in some ways does remind me of Taylor Swift’s “Haunted” (there will be mentions of Taylor Swift throughout this post so… get used to it).

I really love the fact that this song is the one that opens the album, because it both lyrically and thematically paves the way for the remainder of Venus.

“Sweet Love of Mine”

You’re the heart of me, oh sweet love of mine

I think that this is the one song on the album that – to me – is most reminiscent of The Civil Wars. The melody in the verses, the phrasing, and the falsetto that Joy uses (this amazing lilting falsetto that I so wish I could steal) are all quite similar to the musicality of the former band. Out of all of the songs on the album, oddly enough – in spite of my diehard love of The Civil Wars – I like the least. It’s not a bad song by any means. It’s got an easy-to-follow melody but I think it’s lacking that distinct and powerful emotional punch that is present throughout the rest of the tracks on this album. Again: I still really like it, but maybe I’m just less inclined to enjoy love songs these days.

Speculate what that says about me in the comments!

“Woman (Oh Mama)”

I am a universe wrapped in skin

I am totally, completely, head-over-heels in love with “Woman (Oh Mama).” This is a track that is just so completely and totally powerful, unexpected in the best way, and needs to be the anthem for every feminist – including myself – that currently walks the earth. This song is definitely an homage to an African spiritual, both musically and lyrically. Most phrases begin with something similar in tone to “Woman do…” or “Woman be…” This, to me, is a perfect example of Joy Williams branching out and singing something completely and totally different from what she’s used to but something that is so evidently close to her heart. All of her emotions are at play in this song – there’s pride in being a woman, a little bit of flirtation, anger and determination, gentleness, etc.

Literally, the way this song ebbs and flows parallels the message of the song: women are all vastly complex. We’re often blamed for a lot of things, the weight of the world put on our shoulders. But we’re also expected to be gentle, kind, mothers, and lovers. Joy managed to intricately combine everything a woman is and everything that she should be in this one song. It’s an amazing accomplishment and it’s definitely one of the most powerful songs about women I’ve heard recently. Plus, it’s just a FUN song on this album.

“One Day I Will”

When I look back I’d like to say
You’re better off because of me

It’s rare I love a song from the opening lyrics, but I really love this; it’s super sad and showcases that gentle, ethereal quality that Joy Williams has always had in her voice. There’s a quiet piano melody throughout “One Day I Will,” too, which I absolutely love. Joy has this amazing voice because it’s so controlled even in the softest of moments. Sure, she gets to really belt on songs like “Woman (Oh Mama),” but songs like this one remind me just how powerful the gentle moments can be too.

What strikes me most about “One Day I Will” is that it’s a song that begins in kind of desolation and darkness, but ends with Joy saying that one day she will be strong (and repeating that until the song ends). I love that. I love that the song begins and ends with the same kind of quiet intensity, but the perspective and the focus shifts. Really, Venus is a “coming out” of sorts for Joy: a way for her to unveil all of her shadows and all of her light. This track was a perfect example of that.

“Not Good Enough”

When will we ever learn that perfect is just not good enough?

I love the musical accompaniment in this song, honestly; it’s got a really good beat to it and Joy does what she does so well – make her voice fluid and slide. As I was listening to it, this song reminded me of something but I couldn’t recall exactly what it was. When I listened again, I realized something – I was reminded of Celine Dion. Like, circa the A New Day Has Come album. 

I don’t have much else to say about this song except that I really like the message, I think it’s great, and the musical backing is one of my favorite on the album.

“What a Good Woman Does”

Hear me, I haven’t lost my voice without you near me
And I could tell the truth about you leaving
But that’s not what a good woman does

I just love this song (and also women, for the win, y’all) because it’s so sad and focuses on the more soprano end of Joy’s amazing vocal range. Again: with a lot of songs on this album, the melodies are slower, more meaningful, and sadder. There’s no doubt that this is a song that is extremely emotional and the fact that it’s backed by a simple piano and we’re left to focus solely on Joy’s voice was a great choice, creatively. The thing about Venus is that the music never overshadows the message. Too often these days in music, lyrics get lost in drums and guitar solos. And that’s not to say that those things are bad. I love those kind of songs.

But the quieter, more poignant and raw vulnerability found in songs like “What A Good Woman Does” is just so refreshing and so counter-cultural in the popular music industry these days. Joy and her producers allowed her voice – that intense, sad, beautifully melodic prowess – be the focus of this album and that’s what makes it and this song so moving.

“Until the Levee”

I’m gonna stand here in the ache
until the levee on my heart breaks

Switching gears from what I just talked about, stylistically, “Until the Levee” is just REALLY cool (with the echoing vocals in the second verse and throughout the chorus). The choice of style for this song is also really reflective of the lyrics too. There’s this ethereal, haunting strength to this song that is represented in both the music and the lyrics. I also truly love how this song focuses on the lower part of Joy’s range. She’s got an impressive vocal range and I don’t think she gets enough credit for how she can transition between registers and also allow her voice to be lilting falsetto one moment and full belt the next.

I really do enjoy “Until the Levee.”

“You Loved Me”

Oh I tried and I failed
and you loved me

“You Loved Me” is a quiet love song. It’s a delicate love song. And it’s a hesitant one, too, which is what I think is so striking in contrast to the declarative statement in the title. I don’t have a lot to really say about the song besides that. It’s a good track and it really showcases the themes of love and perfection in relationships and the battle against and for both in our souls.

“The Dying Kind”

Bow your head in silence, in shadows pray
Lay down in the darkness; let it see your face
Don’t be afraid

Out of all of the songs on Venus, I really and truly love “The Dying Kind” and it may be my favorite (next to “Welcome Home,” which I’ll discuss momentarily.) This song totally reminds me of Celtic Women – it has the same musicality, that same Celtic soul and rhythm. So, to put it simply: I’m obsessed with it and the trills in Joy’s voice. 

“The Dying Kind” isn’t just my favorite because of those wonderful Celtic allusions and whispers, though. I also really love the lyrics. Most people know that Joy Williams was a CCM artist long before she entered the world of soul and pop. I think that a part of why I love this album so much is also why I love Mumford and Sons’ albums: you don’t need to always speak the name of God to talk about him. There are spiritual things happening all around us each day. And the biblical and spiritual imagery is strong with “The Dying Kind.” It’s not overt and it’s not heavy-handed. It’s not preaching. It’s raw and real and what it does most of all is make you feel something. You feel so many shades of grace and love and darkness and – ultimately – hope. Sometimes the most deeply profound and spiritual songs are the ones where you’re reminded of the beauty and poignancy of life itself. And where you’re also reminded – for a few moments – that the world is vast and strange, but we are not alone, even in the shadows.

“Till Forever”

We grow stronger for breaking apart together

You guys, I think I just have a problem with overt love songs. I like “Till Forever,” but not nearly as much as the rest of the songs on this album. It’s still really good: because even a Joy Williams song I don’t quite connect with is better than most anything else being played on the radio these days. And maybe that’s my ultimate problem with the few overtly love songs in this album – I don’t feel as connected to them, as tethered to Joy, as I do in the other tracks.

Nevertheless, this is still a good song.

“Welcome Home”

Come inside from the cold and rest your weary soul
You belong, you are loved, you are wanted
You’re not alone

I just love this song. Like a lot – it’s sad but hopeful and it kind of builds toward the bridge like a hymn; the entire thing feels like it could be sung in a massive stained-glass church or something, even if “Welcome Home” isn’t an explicitly spiritual song. Apart from the music of the song, which I love, what I truly love about this song is the lyricism of it. The lines above are some of the simplest, most beautiful lines I’ve read in a song recently.

I also really love that this is the song that ends the album. Because much like Taylor Swift ending Red with “Begin Again,” I love that Venus ends with coming home and beginning again. It’s a beautiful thematic choice and it’s probably my favorite song on the album because of the message in it – “Welcome Home” is a literal “coming home,” but also metaphorical one of finding yourself again. 

You can interpret this song as spiritual (coming home to God or to faith) or not (finally finding that place inside of you that accepts yourself; returning to a place of creativity again), but however you interpret it, make no mistake: this is a powerful way to end the album and an immensely hopeful one. Here, Joy Williams is expressing what the majority of her album did – you can mine light from the darkness; you can find joy in the shadows and healing in the silence. 

Darkness isn’t permanent. Venus is the name of the album and Venus is the brightest planet. And you know something? I think that Joy’s choice to write about darkness in this album but ultimately title it after the brightest place in our universe is pretty freaking brilliant.


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