For a portion of my youth, I grew up in my grandfather’s church. He’s been gone for over 20 years now, but he remains a towering influence on my life (and not just because I now live in his house). I’m not religious at all, though, because of that background, when I hear old hymns, I’m taken right back to those Christmas programs dressed as an angel, my grandmother belting it out on the organ, and a general feeling of warmth and safety.
Joseph Allred taps into this energy with the sharpest knife in the drawer, dissecting it and taking the rawest bits to create their own transcendent doxology. Even though Allred lives in Boston now, their music is saturated with the dirt roads and backwoods of America’s south. This music defies eras and categorization, much like the hymnals of my youth. Allred has always been able to do just about anything imaginable with any stringed instrument, but their voice, their actual voice, has never been front and center as it is on Branches & Leaves, and that completely changes the narrative.
Branches & Leaves is a collection of intensely personal mantras and spiritual explorations. Even if it’s easy to imagine songs like the title track that opens the album or “When They Lay Me Down” whirling with bombast out from any small rural chapel of Anywhere, USA, these songs feel more like personal conversations with, and existential questioning of some higher power. Across the rich, encompassing warmth of harmonium and piano, Allred sings with wrenching affliction on the title track, “I saw his name, and I touched his face. Now I don’t dare go back to the water,” the words stinging in layered harmony. There’s a solemn determination in the music of a person convinced there’s a place somewhere in the world for them, but growing uncertain with each passing season whether they will ever find it and wondering if the time has come to settle in somewhere else or give up entirely.
This moment of feeling adrift builds into an emboldened resolution on the sacred harp-hued “Redbud Winter.” Allred’s guitar spits fire, cascading in waves as they sing stoically, “I kept love warm in my heart, though the snow was heavy outside,” painting picture after picture, immersing listeners into a distant world on fire. “And there in the snow with her rosy arms stretched out to me,” they howl, “bathed in the cold milky light of the moon. I fell on my knees and how the warmth enveloped me.” Allred’s timeless song is steeped in fraught misery and forgiveness, the longing we have all felt, and the desire to transcend it all.
I imagine Branches & Leaves being the secular psalms of a parallel world. The point of hymnals is to make one feel closer to God, and while Allred’s timeless canticles don’t do that, exactly, for me, I do feel a place inside of myself aglow with the fulfillment of feeling like I’m part of something greater. The early reaches of Branches & Leaves are the heaviest, the ‘darkest before the dawn’ moment where the crossroads feels more like a dead end. But Allred endures and especially on the two traditional pieces, the a capella “When the World’s On Fire” and the cathartic reverie of “Can’t Feel at Home.” Even if the latter is about finding a home in heaven, the freedom and resulting lightness from throwing up our hands and letting the path lead us, at least for a time, is palpable. Allred echoes that relief with the delicate instrumental romp that follows, “Little Dreams and Fancies.”
Branches & Leaves is a complete experience, utterly destroying me at one turn only to pull me up with a gentle embrace and lift me toward the heavens to a safe place where we can all sing together. Allred sings about the consequences of living and the choices we make, offering no clear answers because there aren’t any. Branches & Leaves is stunning in the way it shapes the visceral experience of modern life into a radiant, ageless tome that meets the sharpest edges with tenderness and never lets the darkness win the day.
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