To record an ode to her home state of Kentucky, Louisville-based folk singer and songwriter Joan Shelley decamped to Iceland. Like the River Loves the Sea (the album title a play on the Si Kahn song “Like Butter Loves Bread”) is Shelley’s sixth album and most consistent work to date.
Much of Like the River Loves the Sea feels instantaneously familiar. Shelley’s dulcet voice provides instant comfort and her signature soft fingerpicking firmly roots the record in the contemporary folk tradition. Additionally, a number of previous collaborators and champions return, like freak folk icon Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Maiden Radio (a trio including Shelley, Julia Purcell, and Cheyenne Marie Mize that self-released an album last year), offering harmonies. Regular bandmate Nathan Salsburg’s guitar work also appears throughout the album.
Most noticeably, Like the River Loves the Sea features additional production and instrumentation compared to her previous albums (especially those prior to 2017’s stellar self-titled release, recorded and produced by Jeff Tweedy at Wilco’s Loft in Chicago). Icelandic siblings Þórdís Gerður Jónsdóttir and Sigrún Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir — a local addition since recording abroad — leave violin, viola, and cello whispers all over the record. They rise and fall throughout “The Fading,” a ballad that honors Shelley’s old Kentucky home, in which she sings, “Old Kentucky stays in my mind / It’s sweet to be five years behind / That’s where I’ll be when the seas rise / holding my dear friends and drinking wine,” (itself a sentiment offer attributed to Mark Twain).
The siblings’ string work also shines in “Tell Me Something,” a quietly defiant tune in which Shelley sings, “I’m telling you now / what once told you once before / that I’m gonna get my way” as a cello saws away in the background. The additional instrumentation isn’t limited to strings, though; while percussion has marked certain songs on previous records, it’s more apparent on Like the River Loves the Sea. Album closer “Any Day Now” nearly grows into a folk rock song with producer/multi-instrumentalist James Elkington’s drumming. Even just with subtle swishes and snares, the influence is assertive.
But one of the most impressive elements of Like the River Loves the Sea is that the 12-track record flows so fluidly for nearly 40 minutes. Shelley’s longest album may also be her best, where she sounds most at home with herself and her songs. It’s a rich work that highlights the subtle growth of an artist, while preserving the melodies and vocal timbre that made her work so special in the first place.