“My hope for The Greater Wings is that it lives as a love letter to my chosen family and as an expression of the depth of my commitment to our shared future. Being reshaped by grief also has me more aware of what death does not take from me. I commit that to heart, to words, to sound. Music is not bound to any kind of linear time, so in the capacity to record and speak to the future: this is what it felt like to me, when we were simultaneous, alive, occurring all at once. What it has felt like to go up against my edge and push, the love that has made it worth all this fight. These memories are my values, they belong with me.”
The first album in over six years from American songwriter Julie Byrne is a testament to patience and determination, the willingness to transform through the desolation of loss, the vitality of renewal, and the courage to rise, forever changed. For nearly a decade, Byrne has moved through the world as a characteristically private artist largely outside the public eye. A self-taught musician that has committed her life to her work, she now emerges from a deeply trying and generative period with the most powerful, lustrous, and life-affirming music of her career, The Greater Wings. While they hold the plasticity of grief and trauma, the songs are universally resonant, unbridled in their devotion and joy, held up by the love and alliance of a chosen family. Byrne leans further into atmospheres both expansive and intimate; the lush, evocative songcraft flows between her signature fingerpicked guitar, synthesizer, and a newly adopted piano, made wider by flourishes of harp and strings. It is the transcendent sound of resource, of friendship that was never without romance, of loyalty that burns from within like a heart on fire, and the life force summoned in unrepeatable moments — raw, gorgeous, and wild.
Byrne has narrowly willed The Greater Wings into existence, honoring the legacy of Eric Littmann, her longtime creative partner, producer, and synth player who, halfway through the album’s making, died suddenly at the age of 31. The material was written across several seasons, each its own lifetime: imagery from nights on tour, chord shapes found pre-pandemic. Writing continued through lockdown, the converging traumas of isolation, the long horizon of emergence, and the drives cross-country for the collaborations that would give shape to The Greater Wings. Recording began in Chicago in Eric Littmann’s home studio space in the winter of 2020 and continued in New York with harpist Marilu Donovan (LEYA) in the spring of 2021; Littmann, true to form, brought a portable recording set up in his suitcase.
In the early summer, they brought the project to Los Angeles, where violinist Jake Falby composed and recorded the first of his integral string arrangements. Eric died a month later, in late June of 2021; in the cataclysm of his death, the record would not be opened again until January 2022. In the winter of that new year, in the fires of grief, Byrne and her closest collaborators reconvened to finish the record with producer Alex Somers (Sigur Rós, Julianna Barwick), immersing fully into sessions in the Catskills of New York, her first ever at a conventional recording studio. The challenge became a balance in both allowing the sound to expand and trusting her instincts amid irrevocable change, to uphold their original vision for the record. “We worked with intense effort, devotion, and deliberate exploration of how our collaboration with Eric continues, even through death.”
Byrne will confess the success of her 2017 LP Not Even Happiness was unexpected; nine gracefully road-worn odes to the fringes of life she assembled without any expectation that they’d travel so far beyond their DIY origins. But its hushed closing track, “I Live Now As A Singer,” did forecast an intention. She knew the open space — occupied by Littmann’s signature palette of synth tones, Falby’s strings, and Byrne’s robust, drifting voice — presented something new and thrilling, something they’d develop as a live band touring the world, and what would later be understood as the catalyst for material to come. The Greater Wings builds on this revelatory space at every turn.
The title track presents the alchemy of the album with tender, arresting precision. Byrne outlines its namesake on guitar alongside celestial strings, recalling one of their earliest house shows (“There’s music in the walls, you were with the moment with your life across the chord”) and their first tours through Europe’s underground. “Performing reminds me, time and time again that the stage can be a space to inhabit and feel free in.” The intricacy of the guitar propels the “The Greater Wings” even further into its own mythology — the lyrics begin to conjure the stages of a quest: “I feel it, the tilt of the planet, panorama of the valley, measure me by what I’ve risked.” The song travels through peaks and lowlands, pink noise, the surreal nostalgia of moonrise where light seems to come from a different age. Above all, the title track pays homage to what is unseen but deeply felt: “We hold the pact: Forever Underground, Name my grief to let it sing, To carry you up on the Greater Wings.”
“Moonless” is an ode to the glistening darkness, partially written on an outlying island of southern Portugal where Byrne was completing an artist residency. “I remember walking through the dune systems on the ocean side of Culatra, the noises of the docks, the scent of tidal flats. The land itself, as a coastal formation, in a constant state of movement between erosion and growth.” The hypnotic piano ballad is a portal into the lost, late night with beckoning sensorial detail: voices rising through the smoke, the tactility of names carved in the table, wind moving in off the ocean, across skin. Just as the scene begins to feel eternal, Byrne upends notions of the torch song. “Moonless” does not pine for the return of another but instead speaks to the alleviation of no longer waiting for someone’s love. “Something I love about being a songwriter, especially as a queer woman, is being able to have the last word in my work, becoming myself line by line. This is a breakup song, and it’s the first song I wrote on piano.” Her new instrument fades into pools of eventide. A bare constellation of strings end the story like sparks rising in the darkness, then vanishing into ash.
“Hope’s Return” reimagines “Love’s Refrain,” Byrne’s 2020 collaboration with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, adapted here on guitar in the distinct tuning found across most of the album. For the new arrangement, producer Alex Somers contributes bowed acoustic guitar to the bridge, one of many subtle ideas he helped facilitate. “He was the right person to finish the record with,” Byrne says. “He’s everything they say, there’s almost like a divinity to his kindness, and he’s also very silly and playful for all his depth and sophistication, he has such a tender heart. It’s an intimate process, and I didn’t have to conceal anything.”
The statement at the heart of the record is “Summer Glass.” A luminous, euphoric synth ballad, unbridled in its portraiture of intimacy, memorial, and deeply personal alliance. The song ignites all at once with Littmann’s arpeggiated synth as they approach the zenith of their creative partnership; Byrne’s voice casts the spell, “I can’t say if it was devotion. I just wanted to feel the sun on my skin.” The opening lyrics find her at the water’s edge. Transfixing and radiant, Marilu Donovan’s harp joins the pulse of the synthesizer in a tidal, interlocking cascade — a synergy that embodies years of collaboration. “Summer Glass” opens wide to encompass a universe of references, turning candid moments of laughter, desire, failure, perseverance, inertia, and emergence into legacy. Falby’s strings offer a sweeping, incandescent bridge, a step more urgent at the album’s apex, before Byrne returns with a final invocation:
“One day the skin that holds me will be dust and I’ll be ready to travel again / For now I want to go further in, Into moment, into vision, into you / I swore I’d show myself so I could renew / That’s not the same as being new forever / The shape of your hand left in the dust of Summer Glass / I want to be whole enough to risk again.”