For many, there is a disconnect between what we tell others and what we tell ourselves: It feels inexplicably foolish to repeat the gentle words of comfort that we say to friends when looking in the mirror. There’s extraordinary value in being kind to yourself, but it’s also one of the hardest things to do.
Emily Keener’s third release is an exercise in self-compassion. But it’s not a record full of inspirational Instagram posts about loving yourself. I Do Not Have to Be Good is a heavy record, where sadness and doubts are magnified.
Throughout the record, Keener — the 2017 winner of the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award — sings in fretful murmurs. It makes lyrics like “brushed him off my teeth because I needed to be alone” (“Comfort”) or “all those classic country songs you hate / I sleep with them turned up loud” (“Static”) feel even more intimate. The instrumentals on I Do Not Have to Be Good are, in general, minimal, and songs range from lonesome guitar-focused tracks to moody rock numbers that further underline Keener’s melancholy. “Do You Love Me Lately” is the lone song with a steady, upbeat rhythm.
In her poem “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver writes:
You do not have to be good.
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.
Oliver is a muse for Keener across I Do Not Have to Be Good. The album title is taken from the opening line of “Wild Geese,” and “Mary, I Love Her” is an ode to the late poet. Oliver’s poem feels like a touchstone throughout the album. While Keener wades through her doubts, she has moments of clarity and confidence, as if she’s just re-read Oliver’s words. Among the tender sways of “Boats,” she admits: “All my life I’ve never known much about anything / But I know you.” And it feels like she’s talking about herself.