On her latest effort, Earl’s indie folk has hints of countrified longing and a dash of retro-pop flair. Her songwriting is mostly somber but shows enough grit to get through the tough times and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. The album opens with its two catchiest tunes, “Swift Arrows” and “Sea of Glass,” though the tone soon shifts to a folksier, more forlorn place with songs such as “Grown Up Things,” “If It Isn’t You,” and “This Is Me Now.” She shows strength and fragility in the course of a single song. It’s not the time for frivolity; instead, as the refrain rings, “It’s time for grown-up things.” The one major reprieve from Swift Arrows’ soul searching is “The Artist,” a song based around a call-and-response chorus (“I love you / You love you too”) that has a distinctly ’60s pop vibe. The album ends with a blend of joy and sorrow as “We Will Die” celebrates being alive while facing the inevitability of what will come.
Attribute the lively spirit of the album, in part, to its producer, Seattle singer-songwriter don Damien Jurado. The vast majority of Swift Arrows was recorded live at Columbia City Theater, and this atypical approach is reflected in the richness of the sound. The process allows Earl to showcase the prowess of her pipes in a completely natural way. The balance is also spot-on throughout the record. Everything fits in place: keys can drive a song (“Swift Arrows”) or hang in the background (“Forget You Ever Wondered”); backing vocals can be subtle (“Mary”) or boisterous (the chorus gang vocals of “The Artist”). Each detail adds texture to the record without sacrificing the essence of Earl; each tune could stand on its own with just her lovely vocals and an acoustic guitar.
Unlike many coming-of-age tales, there’s no neatly wrapped conclusion. There’s no “The End.” It’s merely the beginning of a new chapter, with a protagonist who’s emboldened by fresh perspectives. Now we get to watch Shelby Earl’s story play out. Lucky us.
Songs of Neko Case with Shelby Earl and Zach Fleury
Aug 1 at 7, The Triple Door, $12–$15
Bumbershoot: The Round 100 (feat. Shelby Earl)
Sept 1 at 1:45pm, Seattle Center, $50–$230