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The dreamy lo-fi Americana of Long Day in the Milky Way places Kris Delmhorst’s newest album high in her catalog. I’ve known since Five Stories that she was capable of existentialism tucked into magical realism, but she’s never gone quite so all-in as she did here.
I learned about Kris Delmhorst when I got tickets to her show as part of a membership pledge to public radio station 88.1 KDHX in Saint Louis. It was in 2002, in support of her album Five Stories. I loved her slightly irreverent Americana vibe, and was enamored with her usage of wordplay and metaphors. Later, seeing Morphine’s Billy Conway and Dana Colley in the album’s personnel cinched it: this was true love. How Delmhorst is just as unrecognized today outside of the New England scene as she was then dumbfounds me. She’s pure magic no matter where her art goes, and Milky Way only helps me believe this.
While Long Day in the Milky Way is generally ethereal, it’s just as grounded in the foundation of her entire career. This is as much as successor to her last album, The Wild, as it has visible roots to Strange Conversation—the album where she adapted public domain poems into full-fledged songs. This album also channels the not-of-this-world vibe of Shotgun Singer, one of my Top 10 all-time favorite albums and where she tapped directly into faerie magic.
Through her entire career, Delmhorst uses notes and rhythms in her melodies that are just outside the implied pattern we expect to hear. This gives me the impression that she’s singing the melody and counter-melody at once, which makes her special already. But where she’s particularly unique is how she goes for quieter and breathy in situations when less self-assured singers would try to belt it out and shake the paint off the walls. She has always chosen to draw you in to the more powerful moments, and it has a compelling effect.
The multiple background singers on Milky Way bring out both of Delmhorst’s tendencies by allowing the melody and countermelody to coexist without either being implied. And when all of the voices layer into different notes without increasing in volume, the restraint they all show works beautifully on my ears.
The album begins quiet and strong with “Wind’s Gonna Find a Way,” utilizing a vibe of looking so far inward that it feels the same as floating through space. All that, mind you, with a dreamy Beatles-adjacent melody, keyboard and guitar, waiting patiently for the backup vocalists, drums and bass. The harp solidifies the album’s celestial beginning. This feeling returns throughout the album, but the third song, “Hanging Garden,” brings the album to Earth with what feels like a good sunrise song.
Much of the album’s music is focused on finding hope on the journey, or centering oneself with a grounded perspective. Some songs seem to be conversations simultaneously with her younger self and her own daughter, filled with lyrics of perspective and compassion. The happy and positive cover of the Rickie Lee Jones song “The Horses” fits right into this form.
Other songs are more universal in their implied audience, but all feel like they’re meant to heal us. It lets you sit in the feelings while pointing to a way through the tough stuff. “Horses in the Sky” is a perfect example of how the feeling works through the abstracted imagery.
I also recommend you check out “Flowers of Forgiveness.” It begins with a “Wish You Were Here” guitar line but blooms into one of the album’s best soundscapes: a soaring bridge made out of vocals and horns that you can’t help but feel in your bones.
“Crow Flies” is probably my favorite song on the album. It builds instruments in as the song progresses, a style I’m a sucker for. Its lyrics sit in the wistful anxiety about wanting to do things in a straightest line possible, while knowing full well that’s not how things work. This ends up feeling funny because it’s followed by “Bless Your Little Heart,” a back porch kind of song all about there being no hurry. That’s Delmhorst’s sense of humor in a nutshell.
Milky Way is made of complex music but it’s meant to unclutter us. I’ll be putting this album on when I want to cool down, or when I want to focus in on something. It’s an excellent gift from a seasoned professional who understands how to see the perils of the world but knows how to grow anyway.