Words by Keane Fletcher
What is it about the sea? Seemingly endless, primordial and indifferent, the sea has been one of mankind’s biggest inspirations since the beginning of time, a ready-made metaphor for life’s inevitabilities and the things we can’t control. And what could be more uncontrollable than our emotions, a subject poet-cum-songwriter Natalie D-Napoleon dives headfirst into on her latest album You Wanted to Be the Shore but Instead You Were the Sea.
Part folk, part country, part indie-songwriter confessional, You Wanted to Be the Shore is extended meditation on love’s instability, on realising (perhaps too late) that a relationship has fallen short of expectations but finding strength within that realisation nonetheless.
The follow-up to D-Napoleon's 2012 album Leaving Me Dry, You Wanted to Be the Shore was recorded in the spring of 2019 across a three-day period in an old chapel in the hills behind Santa Barbara with a quartet of esteemed local collaborators, including Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams/John Mayer), Dan Phillips (Peter Gabriel), Angus Cooke (The Ataris), and Jim Connolly (Van Dyke Parkes/Jeff Bridges). Despite these Californian-connections however, stylistically You Wanted to Be the Shore feels most indebted to the gothic soundscapes of the South, that Appalachian preoccupation with nature, death and redemption, full of duelling banjos, slide guitars and upright basses. ‘Thunder Rumor’ is a fitting opener in this regard, ominous and bluesy, full of fire and rain; ‘Wildflowers’ too, a beautifully morbid folk song about death and the stories we take with us to the grave (in a similar vein to Hozier’s ‘In A Week’); and the title track ‘You Wanted to Be the Shore but Instead You Were the Sea’, the emotional spine of the album, a Lucinda Williams-esque ballad that reckons with the end of a relationship and its accompanying blame, which blossoms like a storm across its four-and-half-minutes. ‘If I was the sun, you were the black clouds/ murder of crows, black rain coming down,’ sings D-Napoleon, and you can feel the heat behind her words here, the almost biblical weight of her imagery.
These moments of lyrical strength shouldn’t come as a surprise given D-Napoleon’s background as an esteemed poet, her work appearing in such publications as Cordite, The Australian (Review), Entropy, Griffith Review, StylusLit, Southerly and the Australian Poetry Journal. However, given the absolute rawness and voracity of some of these poems (see First Blood: A Sestina, which won her the 2018 Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize, as an example) I found myself wishing for more biting detail and nuance in some of her lyrics, which adhere perhaps too strictly to the imagery and metaphor of traditional folk music and Americana to really take us inside her experience.
That being said, the album is deeply atmospheric, and considering the fact that it was recorded using only a single mic, the production here is lush and richly textured, a testament to D-Napoleon’s song-craft and the skill of her collaborators. A fine album that will no doubt resonate with the Australian folk and country scene, let's just hope we don't have to wait another 8 years before her next one.
Thanks for stopping by Hipland!