Alela Diane’s sixth album Cusp comes five years after her last record About Farewell and was inspired by the birth of her second daughter. It is unapologetically an album about motherhood and all of the life-changing moments and responsibilities that come with it. But any misplaced concerns that this will somehow have an adverse effect on the quality of music should be immediately swept aside. She handles the subject in a very considered, light-handed yet emotionally engaging way. Importantly, the songs are stronger, melodies brighter, structures clearer and emotions deeper than ever before. The fact that she came close to dying during childbirth reinforces this last point, and explains the album’s title. “Life and death meet in a cusp,” Diane comments.
Piano plays a bigger role than in earlier work, a move away from the delicate guitar backing of last two albums (although previous collaborator Ryan Francesconi does appear once again, as do a range of other guests like Peter Broderick). The shift to piano was primarily due to her breaking a thumbnail at the time of recording, but the softness of the instrument suits the subject matter well.
It also helps position her quite closely to Agnes Obel, while the enduring influence of Kristin Hersh is also present in the rich, quiet power of her vocals, at times shaded, at other times guarded. There’s a consistency to the songs and arrangements that previous albums may have lacked. Albatross and Threshold signal a reflective, scrutinising beginning and Moves Us Blind showcases the experience-borne maturity that now defines her music.
Émigré stands out, a song about the ongoing international refugee crisis. It recounts the story of a group of people taking a precarious journey by sea to hopefully a better life elsewhere. Diane sings in the first person, recounting how “I can feel the fear hang heavy on the water” and “this vessel cannot bear the burden of our load”. The sense of desperation is conveyed in lucid, spine-tingling fashion. Musically it’s also the closest she comes to the folky roots of her debut album.
Never Easy is about overcoming the adversity that motherhood and life in general can sometimes bring. Song For Sandy (dedicated to Sandy Denny, who died shortly after the birth of Diane’s first child) is another song that is positively over-brimming with poignancy, detailing stories from lives beset with difficulty and challenges. Lyrically it might be heavy going but these are sustaining, rewarding songs. Ether And Wood further confirms that Cusp contains her most affecting work to date and Yellow Gold excels in sharing small lyrical details that so accurately depict parenthood.
Wild Ceaseless Song sees her directly address her daughter while referencing generations (both past and future) of her family. It’s a stunningly beautiful end to a wonderful album, undoubtedly a career best and an exemplary case study in how to respond artistically to a life-changing event.