Ruth Moody is beautifully confused.
“This world is full of joy and misery,” she asserts over a jazzy banjo in Trouble and Woe, the opening track on her second solo album – and that division might as well be the theme for the entire disc. The Australian-born, Canadian-raised songstress has been fronting folk bands since the late ’90s (including The Duhks and her current trio, the Wailin’ Jennys, who are two-time Juno winners), but These Wilder Things represents a relatively recent baring of the self. She wrote just about everything and plays a slew of the instruments, so there’s no doubt whose true voice we’re hearing. And that voice is sweet and subtly sultry (imagine a more rustic Birdy), but as intimidated by her self-awareness as she embraces it.
Joy and misery – she’s excited to give in and admit a lover as her life partner in One and Only, and to plan romantic dreams from the pillow next to him in Trees for Skies, but Moody is never willing to completely abandon reason in favour of emotion. “It’s hard to let go / Even when we both know / That it’s time / Time to make a change,” she sings on Make a Change, whispered over a piano line in a song that could well portray a breakup conversation that ends in heartbreak for both partners, whose heads win out over their hearts.
When she sings, “I’m gonna sing the trouble that I know,” she means it – and, what’s more, it’s the kind of trouble the rest of us are probably familiar with, too.
With a few slight exceptions (the chorus of One Light Shining), these songs don’t adhere to standard song structures or meters and are more about the blunt honesty of the lyrics, with their blushes of poetry, than to memorable hooks or fast tempos. That degree of introspection and stripped back acoustic arrangements have the potential to make some of us uncomfortable, but if you’ve ever been in a place in your life when love and life collided in a way that Top 40 pop music insists never happens, then maybe getting uncomfortable, guided by a voice tinged with some kind of enchantment, is the best thing for you.
As interesting as her own songs are, it’s the one cover on the album that truly stands out. Moody delivers a folked-up, orchestral version of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark, which is currently getting airplay on CBC Radio Two, and she makes the seminal rock number her own. I went swimming with dolphins and heard their underwater conversations a few months ago, but this song is the prettiest thing I’ve heard this year, and when she gets to the line, “Hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight,” she nails it. I’d be worried about over-hyping this song if I didn’t love it so much.
“Maybe we’ll see a new day rising / If you keep a little hope alive,” goes the chorus in One Light Shining. It sounds simple, even a bit cliché, but it’s hard to sit down and listen to Ruth Moody and not believe her. Relationships and life circumstances are the things that happen to us, and the one thing we’re in control of is the person at the centre. Keeping that one light shining might be the only way to stay sane in a beautiful confusion of joy and misery.
Catch Moody Sunday evening on the main stage at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival in St. John’s.