Calling someone ‘the real deal’ sounds almost like a lazy compliment – the words rhyme, for one thing, and the phrase says nothing much about what it really means. But it’s a necessary shorthand, because the full line would take a while to say. That’s because it’s shorthand for: ‘this person has talent and skill and commitment and heart, and their work causes some kind of deep recognition inside the listener but it’s not the sort of thing that words can describe properly’.
With the release of her debut album, Tailwind, in 2009, it was immediately, electrifyingly clear that Harmony James was the real deal. The album was self-funded and independently released in the days before crowd funding made the idea of artists ranging free from labels less usual. James had socked away money from her ‘day job’, written her songs and chosen her producer, Herm Kovacs. The tracks on Tailwind were jewels, in music and lyric. James made that album as if it might be her one and only: she gave her audience everything, and she was embraced accordingly.
There was a detour through a major label after that, with the albums Handfuls of Sky and Cautionary Tales – a detour because, while it’s impossible for James to be anything less than excellent, the structure of these albums did not have the same impact as that on Tailwind. While the songs were wonderful, there wasn’t the sense that James was in control of how they were presented to her audience – probably because there’s not that much control when you’re on a label. (It’s also important to note that everything is relative: when an artist is this good, an appraisal of their work always takes place on a sliding scale of excellence, not one that careens between ‘bad’, ‘okay’ and ‘good’.)
James’s latest album, Resignation, is self-funded and independently released; it was produced by Glen Hannah, who is well known to country music audiences. Resignation feels like a sequel to Tailwind mainly because, almost ten years later, it sounds as if James has returned to herself. On the third track, ‘Little Kindnesses’, you could swear she almost sighs with relief at one point. Track five, ‘The Life She Left’, feels like the answer to the question raised by Tailwind‘s ‘Precious Little’. ‘Can I Be That To You’ is the rebuttal to ‘Somebody Stole My Horse’.
Overall, the vulnerability that James offered on Tailwind is so present, and so beautifully handled, that as a fan it is hard not to feel emotional. But the experience of those intervening albums is also clear: Resignation is a tight, focused work that could not have appeared right after Tailwind. While that vulnerability is there, James also sounds more confident. Her distinctive young-old voice has its moments of pure power, and it can also beckon to the listener for understanding.
While Resignation will make James’s fans very happy, it would also suit the listener who’s never heard her songs before. James has a deep understanding of country music and her lineage, so those who are loyal to the country music genre will find a lot to appreciate, and it’s also simply a wonderful album.
Many Australian country music artists are highly educated in the genre and also understand their relationship with the fans, which means their work can be understood on many levels: as great country music; as songs that communicate to listeners regardless of their musical tastes; as stories, as confessionals, as means of connection. The fact that there are many such artists means that fans have a lot to choose from – to the extent that I sometimes wonder if we all truly appreciate just how privileged we are to have this music on offer. Ten years ago James announced herself as a major artist; she is still that, and now she’s more: she’s a major artist who is still creating music, which in itself is an achievement. The privilege of being able to listen to this new music should not be underestimated. Because, despite its title, Resignation is not an album that sounds like defeat, retreat or weariness – it is a glorious manifestation of James’s skills and talent, and it has been worth waiting for.
Resignation is out now. You can order it from the artist: www.harmonyjames.com
Or find it on a streaming service.