Somewhere, shrouded deep within the mountains of some western-American state lies a tiny log cabin. Snow dots the ground around it; trees, freshly bare from autumn’s deadening season, hover closely. If you stop and listen you can hear the sound of wood being split for a fire, of animals scurrying for their last scraps of food before the tyrannical winter sets in. And in the midst of this all, tender acoustic strings. A slide guitar’s friendly slur. Drum-brushed whispers. And a soulful, subtle voice beckoning you home. This is Alela Diane, a youthful singer whose music seems too wonderful to be tagged. Every modifier from freak folk to New Weird America, psych folk and pop-Americana has been coined to help quantify the Californian’s beautiful style of music. Call it what you will, it’s a mesmerising record.
From the very beginning of the album, Diane is steeped in imagery, both musically and lyrically. Her first song recounts dreams of the storyteller’s youth, comparing them to a loved one, perhaps a lover: “I’d like to look at your teeth/Lined up in perfect rows/A maze of children feeding orchard trees/Where the flat lands stretch inside your mouth/And when you laugh all the star thistles stumble out”. The words are almost too pretty, slightly sappy, and juxtaposed with just the right amount of bittersweet folk/blues chords. This minor-chorded tale-weaving continues in the next song, “White as Diamonds” with more haunting descriptions as a soft fiddle darts back and forth in between each word: “I’ve known mornings white as diamonds/Silent from a night so cold/Such a stillness/Calm as the owl glides/Our lives are buried in snow”.
The first two tracks ultimately set both a woodsy, rustic feel and a strong pattern of lush songwriting for the rest of the album. This holds throughout, taking many forms: sweet duets (“Age Old Blue”); intensified and earnest love songs (“My Brambles”, “The Ocean”); and gorgeous, introspective ballads (“Every Path”); all culminating in a satisfying, peaceful finale (“Lady Divine”).
Fate has surely made up for the disappointment surrounding the lack of press with Diane’s major label debut release, The Pirate’s Gospel. And what was good on Pirate is great on To Be Still. Alela Diane’s adeptness at crafting just the right blend of heartbreak and hope, sadness and salvation is, at times, emotionally overwhelming; the record seems to demand several helpings to do it justice. Coming from such a rich musical background has given Diane’s art an immediate, timeless flavor. Perhaps her biggest deterrent to mainstream success is the subjectivity of the listener. She’s written a part of herself into every song, and should someone not be ready to hear it, they’ll certainly miss one of the best albums of the year.