The Spur

Joan Shelley takes modernity in microdoses. Her lean songs, which share genetics with Kentucky mountain music and its Irish-Scottish-English tributaries, have blossomed over the past decade in impressionist increments, all firmly rooted in her voice—a dazzlingly bright, peaty contralto—and her similarly earthy poetics. Even her visuals admit newness sparingly: The charming video for “Amberlit Morning,” a highlight of her latest album, The Spur, is set in present-day Brooklyn but counterweighted with references to Georges Méliès 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon, complete with black-and-white intertitles and a planetary satellite that’s clearly as handmade as the music. In Shelley’s world, old magic is often the best magic.

On The Spur, the singer-songwriter uses an uncharacteristically wide range of textures, each careful brushstroke of strings, horns, and vocal harmony deepening the emotional landscapes of songs that quietly savor their own instability, weighing change as a route to renewal, and shifting concepts of home. These ideas coincided with the birth of a child, Shelley’s first, with partner Nathan Salsburg—a fingerstyle guitarist-archivist who shares with her a similarly rangy attitude towards folk tradition (a recent solo LP, Psalms, was an exploration of ancient Jewish texts). Their uncanny melodic connection can seem the product of a single mind, recalling the voice-and-guitar telepathy between Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Like co-parenting itself, The Spur is grounded in the partnership while expanding it.

Some of this new breadth is in the vocal arrangements. “Completely,” a skeletal conjuring of mid-century R&B that Otis Redding might’ve done wonders with, employs Shelley’s multi-tracked voice, adding ghostly backup vocals as she offers wise comfort. On “Home,” Shelley works a word that’s done yeoman’s duty in American music, from “Home on the Range” to “This Must Be the Place,” echoing the Sanskrit mantra it phonetically resembles, leaning into its rhyme with the word “overgrown,” considering the place that formed her, the people who “sweetened and flawed” her, and harmonizing with herself in an aural hall of mirrors. A reliable highlight of Shelley’s LPs has always been hearing how her vocals play with others. On “Amberlit Morning,” her voice is a glowing ember alongside the crackling log of Bill Callahan’s, in beguilingly imperfect harmonies that recall her exchanges with her Louisville-area neighbor Will Oldham—whose voice is nearer her range—yet manifest even further out of sync, with elusive and hard-won flickers of connection.