Coupling music for literature is a fairly regular, albeit, slightly exaggerated practice. To score a book with music is to heighten the overall experience, if not to also slightly exacerbate it. If you effectively pair literature with music to perfection, things are in perfect harmony. But should you pair a written work with a less than ideal selection of music, you’re bound to struggle to make much headway within a novel, short story, free verse, poem, etc.
That being said, the trial and error of marrying literary works with musical movements can make for an incredibly entertaining, and ultimately fulfilling endeavor. So much so that there’s an entire Guardian article devoted to the practice. For the record, I disagree with pretty much every one of their choices with the exception of Aphex Twin for Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but I digress. The point is, pairing literature with music provides a unique depth and breadth to both the written and musical works that generalized criticism of either medium fails to fully encapsulate, which leads us to the matter at hand - the pastoral and occasionally tempestuous (in a good way) Azalea by Now/It’s alum, Lydia Luce.
From an overall standpoint, Azalea is equanimous and vibrant, like a Willa Cather novel, pastoral much like the works of Thoreau, but also contains moments solemn realism that might recall Lucia Berlin, making Azalea a tour de force for Luce.
Just in sheer scope alone, Azalea covers quite a bit of ground when it comes to various purviews and perspectives. In Now/It’s conversation with Luce from roughly a year back, Azalea was (presumably) in a more malleable, developmental form. With that in mind, it would appear Luce’s perspectives of forthright optimism and measured pragmatism seemingly survived the subsequent year of further edits, continued scrutiny, and (a presumed) industry gauntlet, culminating in Azalea. Luce’s lyrical prose makes for easy visualization of settings and scenes originating from the songs, some more immediate than others, if not for their being the name of actual settings (“Helen” and “Sausalito”).
It might be somewhat ironic (or contradictory, or completely off-base, your choice) that one of the primary literary comparisons offered up in conjunction with Azalea happens to be Willa Cather. The majority of Cather’s work focuses primarily on the Midwest and pioneer life - with her Great Plains trilogy (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia) serving as one of the great American trilogies - while the two most geographically apparent songs on Azalea are both located on the West Coast. That being said, the sensibilities purveyed throughout the works of Cather are not all that dissimilar from Luce’s own on Azalea.
While much of Cather’s work does revolve around the Midwest, on a broader plain, her stories center on transcendental evolution and pastoral epiphanies, much like Luce’s songs “Sausalito” and the title track, “Azalea.” The former serves the sentiment of returning from a long departure, in hopes of revitalizing what was left. The latter offers glimmers of hope in darkness - “are you afraid of the dark/do you live by the light in your heart” - a phrase that could serve as a mantra to any and all Cather protagonists.
As for Luce’s aforementioned interconnection with nature and its general essence, Azalea is chalk full of any and all sorts of references to flora and the like, much like one of history’s greatest literary environmentalist, Henry David Thoreau. Luce’s song “Like You Do” offers a perspective not all that different from Thoreau in Walden’s, except the omnipresence is more humanly allegorical than Thoreau’s transcendental view.
Musically, the song takes makes great sonic crescendos that recall Bon Iver, Bon Iver scenes prove a deft understanding of Luce’s overall tonality - intimate and hopeful, but wizened. Yet another, more direct personification of nature on Azalea is “Tangerine,” in which the song’ titular focus shifts from in form and function and back throughout. On top of such vigorous lyrical content, “Tangerine”’s mix of string and brass arrangements recall something similar to Rob Moose and CJ Camerieri from the aforementioned Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
As we wind down this review, analysis, pontification, whatever you want to call it of Luce’s Azalea, we’re led to Luce’s distinctive lyrical intimacy and familiarity. One of Lucia Berlin’s finest literary works is the incomparable A Manual for Cleaning Women, a series of collected stories that observe life from an intimate, sometimes muted and foreboding lens.
The most obvious Luce song to Berlin story parallel would have to be “More Than Heartbreak,” a song that opens with a disparate observation of pressed flowers taunting their owner. It’s not necessarily bleak, but it is intimate and vicariously familiar. Other Berlin-esque moments on Azalea are “Where I Lay,” in feeling trapped and coming undone, and in a much broader sense, “Helen” a meditation on Harry R. Truman, the man who refused to evacuate during the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980. All three songs are delicate, either ruminating on quiet moments and refusing total despair, or by placing a large scale disaster in a more intimate and familiar scene.
As if it has not become obvious to this point, there is an unmistakable depth and breadth to Luce’s Azalea that should and undoubtedly is the envy of contemporaries. Luce’s talents as a musician and a songwriter have never necessarily come into question, but if the scenario were ever to arise, Azalea would all but silence detractors with a resounding certainty. A true first master stroke in what will no doubt become a distinguished career, Azalea is well worth a listen or two dozen, as each subsequent interaction will continue to blossom and flourish much like the multi-colored verdure that lends its name to Luce’s sublime debut.
Album artwork by Now/It’s alum Jacqueline Justice
Design by Tyler James