Their new LP was released in July via Team Love
Artist: Joanna Sternberg
Album: Then I Try Some More
Label: Team Love
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The first and most obvious thing that emerges from Joanna Sternberg’s Then I Try Some More is a humanity so raw and honest it might be almost unsettling were it not so tenderly beneficent.
The bulk of the New Yorker’s album features a lone voice accompanied by either piano or acoustic guitar, and anything more elaborate might crush the fragile beauty of these communiqués from the heart.
Sternberg takes alienation, shame, despair — all the byproducts of a life lived as “other” — and performs the alchemical trick that’s known to the best artists and coveted by the rest. Those toxic emotions are roiled up and repurposed into tender ballads that offer solace and support to all who identify with that taxing end of the emotional spectrum.
Sometimes the aforementioned feat is accomplished by Sternberg’s pouring out an unadulterated litany of personal plaints, like the one-ring circus of self loathing that is the album’s opening cut (in the literal sense), “This Is Not Who I Want to Be.” Sometimes it takes the form of direct ripostes to the bringers of emotional pain, as on the deceptively sprightly sounding “Step Away.” But perhaps most affecting of all are songs like “Don’t You Ever” and “You Have Something Special,” where Sternberg reaches out to all similarly weatherbeaten souls and offers a message of solidarity and hope born of endurance.
AUDIO: “Don’t You Ever”
The searing intensity of the feelings being tossed around throughout Then I Try Some More never meets an equivalent in the music. That kind of combination could be torturous to all but those inclined toward death metal. Instead, Sternberg wisely contrasts the emotional turbulence of the lyrics with soft-pedaled sounds that could seem suggestive of placid waters if you aren’t paying attention.
Sternberg’s vocal delivery is similarly unmarred by any emotional histrionics. Even the most desperate sentiments are imparted with a quietude that, ironically, can become almost ominous precisely because of its sharp contrast to the most wrenching lyrical moments. That quality is no contrived device, though — whether Sternberg is crooning “I don’t feel right inside my body” in an account of gender fluidity on “Don’t You Ever,” or coming off like a psychically scarred, millennial Mr. Rogers on the (ultimately) inspirational “You Have Something Special,” every word feels utterly unguarded, clearly coming from someplace deep inside. And that openness makes the songs all the more poignant as their emotionally loaded messages are gently but powerfully unpacked, like an explosives expert tucking into the inner workings of a bomb.
The songs — especially in this sparse, acoustic setting — feel folkish for the most part. But Sternberg is a well-schooled musician who studied jazz and classical music and started working as jazz bassist before becoming a full-fledged singer/songwriter. So even though the architecture of the tunes is ostensibly simple, there are melodic touches that bespeak a solid grounding in musical theory. For instance, between its willfully artless vocal and elegantly elongated melody, “This Is Not Who I Want to Be” could have fallen off the back of a truck delivering ideas to peak-period Carole King.
AUDIO: “This Is Not Who I Want To Be”
Similarly, Sternberg’s lyrics make no pretensions to poetry, occupying an intimately plainspoken place instead. But there are small turns that underline a deft lyrical touch. On “Don’t You Ever,” the chorus lines “Don’t you ever feel like no one really knows you” and “Don’t you ever feel like no one’ll ever love you” are expertly drafted into double duty as both heartbroken query and commiserative entreaty. And that’s exactly the kind of duality that makes Then I Try Some More such a commanding statement about the dreams and ditches we encounter along the path of personhood.
Then I Try Some More is out now on Team Love Records.
AUDIO: “Step Away”