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Valerie June + Birds of Chicago

Valerie June has had a slow rise to notoriety. After cutting her teeth on the Memphis club scene and self-releasing home-recorded solo albums for years, 2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone finally garnered wider acclaim. 2017’s The Order of Time methodically yet emphatically follows up on the long-awaited success of Pushin’.

June’s utterly unique sound, most exemplified by her drawling, Appalachian-inspired vocal style, has been informed by seemingly divergent sources. As a child, she studied the uninhibited, instrument-free singing of her fellow Church of Christ congregants, none of whom were made to sing less loudly for lack of ability. At home, along with the a capella singing of her family, her mother exposed her to what she called “drug music”—the likes of Smashing Pumpkins. Oddly enough, it was Nirvana’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that was June’s gateway to the blues and traditional country. She told Rolling Stone, “The white boy led me back to the black man. It was me looking for the root.” Her subsequent exploration of her “root” music has clearly informed her later work as it has evolved into a singular amalgam of blues, country, folk, blue-grass and rock. Still, the central presence of the type of unhindered, feeling-rich voice she heard as a child might have the most profoundly noticeable and alluring presence in June’s music.

The Order of Time exists in contradiction, and appropriately so for an artist who so ellusively sidesteps any attempt of classification. Particularly, the record seems to point out a painful contradiction in the human experience of time: momentary experiences are so preciously unique and hold such beauty, yet time seems to carry with it the inevitability of endings. The album begs a basic question: If this life has such goodness in it, how can and why must it end?

Even the goodness itself, though, is not rosy. “Shakedown” is the album’s imagining of a welcoming space of contradiction, in which both the recognition of pain and the embodied celebration of communal hope can take place:

“That body broke it, bring it
Then feel it when you sing it”

This song eloquently captures the contradictory capacity of human beings to “feel” joy in their bodies via activities of solidarity, even while those very bodies are “broke.” The significance of these words is heightened coming from a southern black woman living in present-day America who makes art that draws upon musical histories of other southern Americans, black and white, who communally expressed their pains, longings, joys and loves—all in one simultaneous, contradictory breath.

Immediately after this celebration of confounding joy comes a pseudo-lament. “If And” gives weight to the essential goodness of life and of community, adopting the familial love as its leading metaphor, but does so by setting goodness against the seeming inevitability of endings:

“One thing for sho’
One thing that’s fate
If and you don’t show them you love them,
it will be too late”

“Front Door” is also a somber lament of endings, framing the end of a relationship as an inevitability:

“Bound, Farewell, I’m bound
To leave you waiting
By the front door”

The word choice here makes the theme of endings, and their contradiction with the embodied goodness of experiences in time, even more sorrowful. June asks: Are we “bound,” or trapped, in this history of endings?

“Astral Plane” attempts to answer this question with a question: “Is there a light you have inside you can’t touch?” Here, June asks if there is something else, something beyond this history of endings—maybe something everlasting. The song’s chorus evocatively casts a vision for another, otherworldly reality beyond the current human perception of time, experience and endings:

“Dancing on the astral plane
In the holy water cleansing rain
Floating through the stratosphere
Blind, but yet you see so clear”

“With You” follows “Astral Plane,” grounding the latter’s imaginative idealism. Barring the existence of a radically different reality, the song suggests that an embrace of beginnings might be the closest thing to the everlasting:

“Write a poem or a song
But you can’t hold on
To what’s come or gone
Only what’s begun”

In its questioning of the contradiction between beautiful, confoundingly joyful experiences in time and the inevitability of endings, The Order of Time does not land on a clear answer. Still, the power of the embodied hope of the communal “shakedown” seems to hold strong, as does the power of beginnings. For Valerie June, endings may be ever imminent, but they are not everything.

—Daniel Hickey


February 2018
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