Produced by Beau Sorenson and recorded at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone, Melissa Ann Sweat’s fourth album as Lady Lazarus is a searching work of elemental folk minimalism.
You don’t need much to make a Lady Lazarus song. Verses, choruses, a bridge? These are surplus to requirements. Accompaniment? Maybe just a splash, but it’s entirely optional. Flashy singing and lyrics? They’d just get in the way. A beginning, a middle, and an end—even these you can skip. The song should sound like it’s already been cycling forever when you press play, and like it might keep on like that forever.
To make a Lady Lazarus song, all you really need is a scrap of piano melody, played loosely but with a lot of feeling, sustained and reverbed to gather the harmonics into a self-generating ambience, and a handful of refrains, as direct as you can make them, in a plainspoken first-person register. That, and a voice capable of casual beauty and laidback ardency. Oh, and you need to be Melissa Ann Sweat, whose particular experiences, daring sincerity, and healing drive add depth to simplicity, so the whole exceeds the sum. That’s the tricky part.
Impossible Journey of My Soul Tonight is Sweat’s fourth album as Lady Lazarus, and her second recorded in a professional studio, John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone. For Sweat, it’s an ornate affair; she plays not just piano but also keyboards, electric strings, and electric vibraphone, while producer Beau Sorenson adds atmospheric synth pads and textures. But for anyone this side of Grouper’s standards, it’s still a work of elemental folk minimalism. Without big peaks or tonal shifts, the music laps over you, the accompaniment no more than shining mist blowing off the songs’ soft, regular waves.
The album opens with “I Know What It Feels Like,” bathing a a few enigmatic but heartfelt phrases in glimmering Rhodes chords and strings—a song that tunes you into its subtle atmospheric fluctuations and then dissipates as dreamily as it appeared. On “I Recall July,” the endless restarting of the piano phrase and the low-tide tug of a saxophone cultivate an air of hushed anticipation. “Give a Little Bit of Yourself, Babe” is Sweat’s version of going big, which means the wavelets mass into gentle swells, but on “Golden Heart,” we’re right back to music that proceeds not by momentum, but touch by touch, thought by thought, feeling by feeling.
Lady Lazarus’ songs have often been about searching for love, home, and healing, things with complex and contradictory interrelations. Impossible Journey of My Soul Tonight seems to rearrange them, and resolves a long-building chord of self-actualization. On “Driving the Streets of Your Town,” Sweat, who lived in Austin and elsewhere before she returned to her native Santa Cruz County, describes cruising alone at 4 a.m. through streets she left at 18, taking stock of what’s still there and what’s gone. This quiet moment, which has the introspective solitude that has distinguished her best songs since “The Eye in the Eye of the Storm,” 10 years ago, comes near the beginning of the album, where the lyrics are all about waiting and remembering. But by “Golden Heart,” illusions are dissolving. The tenses of Sweat’s verbs of longing are changing from present to past, clearing the way for something new. By the end, an open-ended vision of solitude and freedom has emerged, one that will resonate with anyone who has sought home elsewhere but found it within, or anyone who’s still trying to.