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Review: Valerie June, 'The Order Of Time'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Valerie June: <em>The Order Of Time</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Valerie June: The Order Of Time

"As of this writing, I am sixty-one years old in chronology," the novelist Madeleine L'Engle once mused. "But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and... and... and..."

It's not entirely surprising that the author of the beloved YA fantasy A Wrinkle in Time would have had such imaginative notions of how past and present fold into each other: "If we lose any part of ourselves," she concluded, "we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away."

But it's not easy to live out that awareness. Valerie June recognizes that treating time as an immutable constant that can also be toyed with, made to telescope, eddy or unfurl in one's mind, requires a certain willfulness. She puts that esoteric wisdom to captivating use on her new album, The Order of Time, the long-awaited follow up to Pushin' Against a Stone, which introduced her singularly expansive vision of roots music to audiences across Europe and the U.S.

As a small-town Tennessee kid, she made a study of varied voices in the Church of Christ congregations her family attended, planting herself in the pew next to singers male and female, young and old, black and white – those who pushed the notes of the old a capella hymns from their nasal cavities, from the backs of their throats or from deep in their chests. By now, June's developed an inviting, inscrutable drawl that seems to encapsulate all of those possibilities, youth and agedness and everything between; on some tracks, her singing family members, and her friend Norah Jones, serve as kindred spirits. June glides between cool resilience and needling in the southern soul number "Love You Once Made." In "If And," she resists the pull of the droning horns and harmonium, before allowing herself to yield to their pulsating pattern. In "Long Lonely Road," her phrasing is as assiduous as it is easeful, serenely persevering through the protracted, humid curlicues of her hill country blues-influenced melody.

Each of those songs, written by June alone, are suffused with nostalgia or idealism that's also strikingly grounded. She gives emotional weight to the work that goes into sustaining and stabilizing domestic lives. Nowhere is that clearer than the murmured second verse of "Long and Lonely Road": "Pops earned his bread in dust / but his hard working hands fed us / Sun up to sun sink down / His body worked to the ground / Folks thought we had it made / 'cause we always kept a face / Meanwhile there's bills to pay / and the stack growing everyday."

For June, labor, longing and reverie exist side by side. "Astral Plane," whose lyrics were originally intended for Massive Attack, is a vision of turning inward to find transcendence, while "Front Door" is a melancholy meditation on the way that an entrance to intimacy can become an escape from it. Producer Matt Marinelli embellished those tracks and others with ambient flourishes that had previously only existed in June's head – cursive string passages and drifting, pearlescent mists of pedal steel, electric guitar, organ and xylophone. The result is a marvel of mindfulness. Rambling yet precise, regal yet downhome, earthy yet mystical, June's musical imagination is a world to get lost in.

The Order Of Time is out March 10 on Concord Records.

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