Review Summary: Comforting in its patient, often plodding sense of pace, the warmth of its live production and the soft beauty in Keener’s voice. But also deeply doubtful of the world it’s born into.
What is, at first blush, Keener’s greatest weakness—that is, an apparent lack of character—is, at second and third and fourth…, the young singer-songwriter’s greatest asset. For far from lacking in character, I Do Not Have to be Good
is, in reality, diverse in sound and impressive in scope. Yes, ‘Do You Love Me Lately?’ could easily have crept its way onto Stranger in the Alps
. And sure, Keener’s songs—the patience with which they unfold—call to mind Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. But that Keener is able to elicit comparisons to both these artists at once and at all—both accomplished in their own right, though otherwise distinct in sound and style—and in a manner so poignantly and unabashedly personal, points not to a lack of character, but rather an immense space for growth, an envious potential.
A potential that is, for the most part, met on Good
. Like Bridgers, and like Lenker, Keener builds upon sparse, slow-moving compositions songs that feel lived-in and thoughtful.
Conjuring images of wistful winds, soft susurrations. Dancing through abandoned houses or fields. Whatever else naturalistic image best fits.
feels freeing: tethered to quiet folk arrangements built around feelings of religious and societal doubts; overcoming these with simple mantras and moving, though subtle musical adventures. On opener ‘Nap’, for instance, Keener croons: “I would take a nap with you / Over anything that God could do”, to the tune of an effects-laden electric guitar that floats in and out of the song’s surface, atop scattered and distant drum pulses. I thought the sounds muddled at first, uneven; how the song unfolds, however, into a lethargic, albeit soothing lullaby makes these small sonic intricacies (scattered throughout the album) all the more impressive. The song takes a subdued approach to the insurmountability of its themes, both sonically and lyrically. Keener toys with simple answers to complex questions; her band deliver with menace a quiet performance; and the result is, indeed, freeing. Emotions burns beneath much of ‘Nap’—indeed, much of Good
—though do so with a charming, smile-inducing sense of freedom and who cares
‘Mary, I Love Her’ dedicates itself to the poet Mary Oliver, from whose poem ‘Wild Geese’ Good
’s title is derived, and who wrote:
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
And it’s with this sense of compassion that Keener approaches much of the album’s themes, along with the music itself. I say freeing because, in spite of its simplicity, Good
is emotionally and sonically adventurous; there’s little by way of what most listeners would call experimentation, but there’s a willingness to try things that colours Keener’s sparse songwriting interesting colours. ‘Elbow’, for example, is punctuated by piano flurries, organ stabs, and strange, hypnotic whispers.
Not altogether unsurprising that nowhere on Keener’s label profile is there mention of the artist’s top-12 stint on NBC’s endlessly shallow (not in spite, but because, of its gimmicky premise) The Voice, on which she covered admirably the likes of Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell. Whether to undermine and minimise the influence of the show on Keener’s career— she is, it is true, a much older and far more accomplished artist now—or to acknowledge it as unbecoming of the singer-songwriter’s broader talents, it’s a striking exclusion. Striking, but not unsurprising: for beyond any equally shallow critique of the reality TV format, I think it highlights the relevance of I Do Not Have to be Good
’s attempt to be—success in being— original.
Not, again, because Keener isn’t indebted to a number of artists and movements; I Do Not Have to be Good
fits very much into the American folk and indie-folk traditions, old and new. Yet, despite this, the young singer-songwriter is able to carve her own niche within these genre(s), jumping from one sound to the next without ever abandoning the lyrical and musical charm that is all her own. What is, at first blush, Keener’s greatest weakness—that is, an unassuming character—is, at second and third and fourth…, the young singer-songwriter’s greatest asset, hinting at, in addition to what hides beneath the surface on the artist's already excellent sophomore album, a vast potentiality beyond.