Tomberlin‘s debut album “At Weddings” is out now on Saddle Creek.
Tomberlin’s backstory never fails to show up in every piece written about her – perhaps deservedly so. The daughter of a Baptist pastor who was completely alien to pop culture for the most part of her youth and teenage years, Sarah Beth Tomberlin has always had something of the music deviant in her, playing the guitar and the piano by ear and writing 20-minute songs just to kill time. For a few years, though, she has been writing low-tempo pop songs in the indie singer-songwriter tradition of Angel Olsen or Julien Baker. Tomberlin debuted last year with “At Weddings”, a 7-track mini album that is now being re-issued with three more songs following her recent signing with Saddle Creek. Understandably influenced by her rather particular background, “At Weddings” finds the singer-songwriter going deep into her personal life, trying to figure out who she is, what she wants and who she loves with a little help from her guitar and piano.
Most of the songs on “At Weddings” are built upon guitar parts so openly simple that they make most of the album’s instrumental backbone seem like an initial placeholder that it worked so well that it never needed to be revisited. There is a warm, almost demo-like quality to the record that fits perfectly with Tomberlin‘s believably candid songwriting. That’s not to say that the production is inconsequential, though. For her debut album, she has paired up with mastermind producer Owen Pallett, who brings in his 15 years of expertise to help to craft a record where every single note matters. Unlike some of her indie singer-songwriter peers, Sarah Beth Tomberlin is no slacker. However instrumentally spare, “At Weddings” is as meticulously produced as any high-profile album, and it’s easy to tell that Tomberlin has taken her time to write and record these ten songs so they come out in the best possible way.
Sometimes bordering on instrumental minimalism, “At Weddings” has Tomberlin‘s voice and lyrics firmly established as its cornerstone. It’s definitely a wise choice. While the softer, almost whisper-like vocals she usually delivers in her verses might not be that impressive, she always goes full-on chanteuse in the album’s choruses, belting out brilliant melodies with a touching emotion that makes her stand out among the rest (see the lovely single “Seventeen” or the heartfelt high notes of “Tornado”). The outlier here is “Self-Help”, a late Beach House-esque take on Tomberlin‘s signature sound that features Owen Pallett’s backing vocals over noisy sonic backwalls and nervous percussion.
Lyrically and melodically-wise, the artist wears her heart in her sleeve in “At Weddings”. That candid openness is given a boost by the album’s almost amateurish simplicity – opener “Any Other Way” is an emotional punch in the guts held by a commonplace, acoustic-strummed chord progression, while “Untitled 1” sees the artist sing her heart out over a slow guitar arpeggio that you must have heard a thousand times before. It is in the piano-based and string-arranged “I’m Not Scared” that Tomberlin truly reaches her peak as a lyricist and songwriter, making use of religious imagery (And it felt so strange when I said it out loud / That I look for redemption in everyone else / But funny thing is that I always hated church (…) / In my sentience I wear your judgement like a crown) to deliver a heartfelt first-person song about love’s inability to bring us happiness: And loving never made anybody I know happy / And loving only seems to make you bruise and to bleed.
She is hardly in a rush to make her point come across. In “Untitled 1”, she plays the guitar for well over a minute until she finally starts singing, and it’s not like there’s a lot going on in the meantime. You can’t blame listeners who find the unhurried pace of her music simply boring, but the truth is that the songs’ emotional build-ups rest precisely on her insistence on beating around the bush while the narrative unfolds, not on any sort of instrumental crescendo. In fact, one can’t help but feel that the album would benefit from her completely going down Sufjan Stevens avenue, letting her compositions grow into ten-minute, multi-part monsters that would make her lyrical talents shine even brighter. If there is something missing from “At Weddings”, that would be the ambition to go beyond typical singer-songwriter territory. There are a few hints that suggest that it won’t take long for the artist to start playing it more left-field, like the background drone sounds in the almost dream pop “Tornado”, but they’re never successfully realized.
“At Weddings” is not without its shortcomings, but it’s still one of the most promising debut albums of the year. Throughout its ten poignant songs, Sarah Beth Tomberlin makes use of her extraordinary gifts as a lyricist to deliver wistful vignettes about love and religion as seen through the unique lens of someone who’s led a life wildly different from that of most people her age. With no real lows and a fair bunch of mesmerizing highlights, her debut is a solid album that could eventually be the beginning of something way bigger.