The Spur

Joan Shelley

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The Spur Review

by Mark Deming

In 2020, Joan Shelley was wrestling with disillusionment and a sense of loss in the wake of a nonstop barrage of troubling news when the COVID-19 pandemic took her off the road and sent her home to her farm in Kentucky. At home, she tended to her chickens, communicated with other songwriters via Zoom, and wrote songs that mirrored her feelings. Those emotions got all the more complicated when Shelley discovered she and her partner and musical collaborator Nathan Salsburg were going to become parents. She was seven months pregnant when they went into the studio with producer James Elkington to record 2022's The Spur, and the complicated emotions are audible in the finished recordings. The lyrics to The Spur's 12 songs echo with vague fears and unanswered questions, imagining the world her child will inherit, wondering how to move forward in spite of her misgivings, and mourning the loss of voices that influenced her. The music is something very different. There is a calm and a sense of beauty in The Spur that's not a denial of the literal messages of the songs, but the sound of a musician finding strength in the simple, enduring pleasure of her melodies. Shelley's musings gain depth in her vocals, never ostentatious but making the most of the eloquent clarity of her instrument and communicating with the listener in an honest, unguarded manner. Her voice and Salsburg's guitar are the foundation of The Spur, with producer Elkington layering subtle accompaniment over their performances that adds color, depth, and shadow to the songs, building on their mood and meaning. The Spur isn't happy music, and it's not sad, either -- it's an honest assessment of a time of personal and cultural change that confronts fear and responds with courage and resilience, even as it betrays the author's understandable anxiety. It documents a gifted artist in full command of her gifts, and it's more than worthy of your time and attention.

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