Joan Shelley hails from Kentucky, and her best music reflects the placid, Sunday evening sound of life in the rural American South. So why did she travel to Reykjavik, Iceland to record her fifth solo album, 2019's Like The River Loves The Sea? That's anyone's guess, but the results show it was an experiment that worked, and worked well for her. The sweet, smokey sadness of Shelley's voice has rarely been better served than it is on these sessions, blending a folkie clarity and quaver with a natural soulfulness that gives her performances a strength that betrays the subtlety of the presentation. There's a natural intimacy to Shelley's lyrics -- she doesn't deal in grand conceits, being more comfortable pondering the more compact themes of human relationships -- and as a vocalist she respects their scale, but she finds in them a universality that lends them a power plenty of more bombastic writers could never match. Shelley, co-producer and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington, and a small crew of Icelandic musicians have made Like The River Loves The Sea a model of artful restraint. There's a whisper quiet tone to this album that gently urges the listener to lean into the music, and the layers and details of the seemingly simple arrangements amply reward the scrutiny. Like The River Loves The Sea seems simple upon first glance, but a more determined study of these twelve songs confirms their elegance is an excellent match for the emotional dynamics of Shelley's vision. Like a more pastoral variation on Joni Mitchell's Blue, the reduced volume on Like The River Loves The Sea gives the music strength, not fragility, and this is Joan Shelley's best work to date. Turns out that trip to Reykjavik was a wise investment.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming