Tara Jane O’Neil Tara Jane O’Neil

[Gnomonsong; 2017]

Styles: embers, maps, teacups, veins
Others: Julie Doiron, Mary Lou Lord, Ida

I was walking up a mountain the first time I heard Tara Jane O’Neil’s new self-titled collection of songs. It felt odd to hike with headphones on, but my mood that afternoon made music seem necessary. For the whole weekend, my mind had been, in Pat Beane’s words, “buzzing with noise and nothing-anxiety.” I thought some songs might help, and I started to climb, letting the album’s tempo set my speed up the trail. We took a contemplative pace. The recordings were alive, I felt, fading in and out of focus. As I took the highest switchback, a phrase from “Purple,” a rhetorical question, arrived like an outstretched hand: “Can you feel how near you are?” And as I reached the top of the mountain, “Blow” began, each of its bass notes glowing as it entered. That song is the album’s single, as in singular, as in strangely beautiful. The lookout was tranquil, and I took a photo of it. The songs seemed to absorb the vista, their embers sustained underneath the settling dusk.

The second time I heard the songs, I was on a long-distance train when it staggered to a stop. In a lull between tracks, I heard the border patrol agent approach the people behind me, demanding their passports. “What were you doing abroad?” he asked them. “Traveling,” they answered. “I know you were traveling,” he replied. “But what were you traveling for?” Their reply was inaudible to me: at that moment, the refrain of “Cali” rose through my mix, on which O’Neil sings of “the sound after all the maps had burned,” an enchanting notion. As the train began to move again, I wondered whether her careworn poems came first or their melodies. As if I or anyone could know, I stared out the window, fields expanding as we went, and thought of Maggie Nelson’s vignette in Bluets about “a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety.” Nelson recently called O’Neil’s music “an occasion for ecstatic dispossession.” It took her about 25 years of listening to O’Neil’s songs, she wrote, for them to “emerge into plainer sight.”

The third time I heard the songs, I was preparing lunch in my kitchen with the stereo on, the windows thrown open. Guitar lines, their contours sturdy if of hairline width, kept catching on breezes, drawing all the spaces in the world together. Uncertain what exactly to listen for, I measured out olive oil by tablespoon. “The path forward is well-lit,” O’Neil sang on “Metta.” I thought about how the symbolists considered music a form of flight, to which poetry should aspire, even though Plato thought music came from poetry, poiesis meaning creation of any kind. With tiny movements, I shook soil off the basil, I splashed water into my teacup, and O’Neil sang about stars exploding inside her ribcage. Spring came in the window, the songs went out, and still I haven’t heard them right.

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