Sarah Beth Tomberlin said in an interview with The Fader, “when you try to make stuff sound more idealistic than it actually is, you’re not really helping anyone. If we’re not telling honest stories, we’re kind of wasting each other’s time”. So, real talk, if you listen to only one album this summer, this year, make it At Weddings by Tomberlin.
A shorter album entitled At Weddings was self-released last September on Bandcamp, (collectors, also note there was also a limited white label vinyl run via Joyful Noise), so it is testament to the 23-year-old songwriter’s impact that At Weddings sees a welcome, fuller release now on Saddle Creek. Even if you’re one of the few who has already fallen deeply for those heady, heartfelt songs, this iteration includes three incredible new tracks that expand the emotional reach and story behind the album.
And, what a story that is. Most of the songs were written in her late teens during a period of transition and isolation, beginning around five years ago, when Sarah Beth Tomberlin, a homeschooled daughter of a Baptist Pastor, was starting to question her faith and by extension her sense of self, her purpose and place in the world beyond Christian values and ideals. The songs resonate beautifully, despite the dissonance of the raw, emotional materials from which they are delicately constructed. The simplicity and immediacy of the arrangements heighten this atmosphere further and you are impossibly drawn into a confusing, introspective space and then gently led safely through it. Throughout, Tomberlin’s self-taught guitar and piano playing is an intuitive and expressive frame that surrounds a powerfully sincere and disarming voice, older-sounding from the calm wisdom in her words.
For some brought up in families where strict adherence to religious values cannot be questioned, every day can be an epic spiritual battle between two sides, good and evil, not merely being right or wrong. Worship is an act of sacrificing one’s will to an idea. So, what happens when cracks appear in world-view, when faith is not enough to justify values that now seem at odds with reality? ‘Any Other Way’, describes the tentative start of that process, treading softly to not offend the ones you love while knowing it is time to go your own way. That idea is developed in ‘Untitled 1’, which sounds symbolically as reverberant and expansive as the unknown future ahead.
“I am a tornado, with big green eyes and a heartbeat, you don’t know what to do and I don’t blame you”, words that rise and flutter between the chiming electric piano and acidic drones on ‘Tornado’, looking for somewhere to settle. Among the sparse acoustic refrain of ‘You Are Here’ there is a more profound sense of certainty, providing a seamless lead into the relatively ‘newer’ tracks on At Weddings. ‘A Video Game’ weaves its story of doubt around persistent, finger-plucked arpeggio, asking “what’s left of your conscience that you want to keep, you forgave it all and lost yourself again?”
Tomberlin says of At Weddings, “my number one goal with my music is for honesty and transparency that helps other people find ways to exist”, something she achieves effortlessly, on ‘I’m Not Scared’. Recalling Julien Baker‘s open-hearted storytelling, Tomberlin doesn’t hide behind obscure metaphor or theatricality and brings us closer into her world with direct, unambiguous words: “To be a woman is to be in pain / And my body reminds me almost every day that I was made for another / But I don’t want to know that cause it happened once and I always look back”. Again, on ‘Seventeen’, the weightlessness of the melody and reverie it inspires is held tightly down by the crushing reality of the experience, where “love is mostly war” and good for nothing. That line, Tomberlin has said, is a nod to Bruce Springsteen, showing that even among the sadness there is also humour and levity. That’s evident too on ‘Self-Help’, with its imagery of using a self-help book to kill a fly.
Sadly, the murkiness of ‘Untitled 2’ masks its emotional content which explores self-doubt following a break up, its ghostly palette washing away the words, which are again full of self-awareness and resolution. Closing track, ‘February’ is much clearer and its spaciousness exposes the fine details of Tomberlin’s voice, with all its wavering sentiments: sarcasm, fragility, defiance, regret and, curiously hopeful emptiness.
At Weddings is more than an arrestingly beautiful collection of songs, it is a personal and humbling account of a young woman finding her way through the disentangling, creative process of becoming someone other. That Sarah Beth Tomberlin found that path through music is to our benefit.
At Weddings is released on 10th August 2018 through Saddle Creek.