Essential New Music: Joan Shelley’s “The Spur”

The last couple years have been undeniably awful for a lot of people, but Joan Shelley’s experience was more complicated. The Louisville singer/songwriter was already ready to stay off the road for a spell when COVID hit. She spent the subsequent time starting a family, and writing and recording this record. The Spur is correspondingly complex—and better for it.

Take the song “Home.” Given her personal circumstances, you might expect a paean to nesting. Instead, the track allows room for images of doubt and decay that tug against the calm grace of Shelley’s voice. And the child’s-eye wonder of “Amberlit Morning” (a duet with Bill Callahan) is balanced by the intimations of facing mortality without the comfort of illusion that she drops line after line on “When The Light Is Dying.” Created with input from an online songwriters’ salon, each of the album’s dozen songs is immaculately constructed, with the sort of apparent effortlessness that is the outcome of a lot of hard work.

That unflashy craft extends to The Spur’s sound. Shelley and guitarist Nathan Salsburg recorded the basic tracks in just three days, then handed the task of completing them to producer/multi-instrumentalist James Elkington (Zincs, Tweedy, Eleventh Dream Day). Elkington’s arrangements are immaculately uncluttered, but they’re every bit as full as they need to be. Brass and harmony vocals lift up the melodies, piano and strings buffer the impact of troubling truths, and a veritable catalog of just-right guitar tones sharpens the hooks. Even when the songs go less than easy on your soul, The Spur is easy on the ears.

—Bill Meyer