The chamomile warmth of Julie Doiron's voice is deceptive. Sure, her murmuring guitars and mellifluous vocals occasionally paint idyllic scenes-- "Warm from the sun and cooled by the wind/ And the grass? Yeah, it sings to me," she proclaims on "By the Lake". But more often than not, the songs on the prolific Canadian songwriter's latest, So Many Days, feel like picnics under constant threat of capricious storms. "Last Night I Lay in Bed", a sing-songy, seemingly tender love song is suddenly undercut by the plainspoken confession, "It scares me to think about losing you," delivered with a poignant shudder that elevates it far from the realm of cliché. Elsewhere, she momentarily cops a defiant swagger: "Maybe the fighter, he don't need no one, and maybe the drinker, he don't need no one," but a few beats later, the whole song quiets to a hush as a thought moves over her as swiftly and opaquely as a dark cloud: "Then again, maybe he does." Doiron has always aimed to capture the kaleidoscopic emotional range of ordinary moments, and accordingly the moods of her songs often transform line by line. Out of this approach, she creates songs that move fluidly, moodily, unpredictably-- like life.
In the 1990s, Doiron got her start playing with lo-fi New Brunswick noisemakers Eric's Trip (the first Canadian band to sign to Sub Pop), and she began her solo career recording as Broken Girl until she outgrew the moniker. ("If somebody was introducing me," she recalled in a 2002 interview, "It would be like, 'Now, put your hands together for Broken Girrrrl!' I'd just get on stage and feel devastated!") The albums she's put out under her own name have all been as intimate and wholehearted as letters home: Accompanied by her guitar playing-- which is usually unhurried and gentle, but occasionally punctuated by gleeful explosions of the kind of noise she learned how to make in Eric's Trip-- her songs chronicle observations from the road, the ecstasies and anxieties of motherhood, and tumbles in and out of love. Continuing in this vein, So Many Days has an overall genial air that draws you in from its first track (the playfully galloping "Cars and Trucks"), but it also contains some of the darkest and most harrowing material she's written since the days she was calling herself Broken Girl.
Doiron's songs are humble, perennially unadorned by aesthetic or lyrical pyrotechnics. The leisurely fingerpicked "Another Second Chance" begins, "I'm not sure why this morning I'm feeling so blue," and sounds-- as a lot of Julie Doiron songs do-- like she just rolled out of bed, picked up a guitar, and decided to memorialize her first thoughts of the day in song. There are charms and limits to this kind of technique, but what So Many Days' 12 songs lack in compositional ambition or epic metaphors, they make up for in an emotional directness that is, in its best moments, absolutely piercing. On "Homeless", Doiron's weary vocals are accompanied by nothing but occasional, forlorn throbs of bass. "I used to be good," she creaks, and then spins a tale of drinking, heartbreak, and abandonment; the straightforward lyrics feel that much more affecting in an atmosphere that sounds too barren for dreams. "To all who love me," she sings, simply, "I am sorry."
Still, So Many Days isn't unremittingly bleak: tracks like "Homeless" and "Another Second Chance" are effectively balanced out by moments of unconditional warmth. The wooly guitars of "Our Love" conjure Yo La Tengo ("Autumn Sweater" hues with just a pinch of "Sugarcube"'s dizzy dynamism), while the sparse "Beneath the Leaves" is a slice of pastoral beauty and affectingly rendered negative space. "For now, no need to talk," she implores, "Just listen to the sounds of life all around, forgetting us for now."
"I'm writing this song to prove to myself that maybe I can write songs," Doiron confesses towards the middle of "Cars and Trucks", which might seem like an odd line coming from the mouth of somebody who has released about a dozen albums. But in the context of the song-- her voice suddenly hopeful, and the chords she's been plucking all along now springing along with new vigor-- it's a powerful moment, and one that finds Doiron, a decade and a half into her solo career, still finding new feelings to reveal and new pathways to let the listener in. "I've been putting it off for all kinds of reasons, I've been afraid to try," she sings, but as the song gathers momentum, it's both exhilarating and triumphant, like we're hearing the song take shape in her brain, and the audible, match-ending thud of Doiron pinning her writer's block to the ground. If the moving and mercurial songs of So Many Days were the result, we have reason to be glad she won.
-Lindsay Zoladz, pitchfork