Joan Shelley’s ‘Like the River Loves the Sea’ is an Intimate Study in Beauty and Sorrow

Over the course of her six full-length albums, Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has trafficked in the strain of intimate, earthy folk and country that calls to mind everyone from Nick Drake to Iron & Wine to Gillian Welch. Her latest, Like the River Loves the Sea, feels simultaneously grounded and even more expansive as it tracks its way through the changing seasons of a relationship.

“A haven woven with warm colors, a woolen place to rest your head,” Shelley sings on the meditative opening track “Haven,” its run time stopping short of two minutes as a lone acoustic guitar holds steady on one chord. Recorded in Iceland with James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, the album is dotted with these kinds of seemingly cozy, impressionistic remembrances. In “The Sway,” Shelley sings of “arms entwined” and “hands let play” as lovers spend a night exploring one another’s bodies. In “Stay All Night,” she sings of falling for someone “in the stream of days/Long and winding/In the sun and shade/Holly and ivy.”

But sometimes these pastoral surroundings are a reminder of what’s no longer there. “Shock of teal blue/Beneath clouds gathering,” sings Shelley in her bell-clear tone, the calming, soothing imagery now inextricable from the fights that necessitated a retreat to the water’s edge. “Shaded by the trees and the sun sprays through/I remember when it shined over me and you,” she sings in “High on the Mountain,” an otherworldly burst of strings from Icelandic musicians Sigrún Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir and Þórdís Gerður Jónsdóttir swelling up to meet Shelley’s aching falsetto. Shelley’s sometime collaborator Bonnie “Prince” Billy also stops by to sing on a couple songs, including the lovely country ballad “The Fading,” which turns an optimistic eye toward the inevitable end of all things.

Shelley sums the process up on the gorgeous “Cycle,” which drifts along weightlessly on an undulating set of chords set against harmonium and minimal percussion. “We were always good friends, but we left it all on the floor/These strange cycle romances, hide in the dormant soil.” On Like the River Loves the Sea, Shelley locates the beauty and sorrow in every facet of it.

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