Eat Honey, Taste Mud (2017)
RIYL: Ingrid Michaelson, Mates of State, Noah and the Whale
Isolated completely out of context, Eat Honey, Taste Mud sounds like the title of a bestselling book of poetry. And that’s oddly appropriate for this collection of songs, the third under songwriter Francesca Blake Olsen’s belt, but the first since joining forces with multi-instrumentalist Joe Aidonidis under the moniker House Sparrow. The whole thing pleasantly reminds you of a book of poems Olsen is slowly putting music to, page by page. While you might not understand every word on first listen, it is abundantly clear there is vivid insight and cleverness behind each one of them.
Olsen has long been crafting quirky, typically brief compositions behind her instrument of choice: the wildly-underrated-and-unfairly-mocked ukulele. (A baritone ukulele, to be exact…) With Eat Honey, Taste Mud, her songs have clearly expanded into more atmospheric places, but not so much so that her bread and butter is unrecognizable. It takes less than 30 seconds into album opener “I Own A Crown” to get a taste of Aidonidis’ influence, where his shoegazey electric guitar comes fluttering in over Olsen’s signature flutter-croon (trademark pending) and sustained ukulele chords. It’s simple yet extremely effective, something you could say about Olsen’s entire discography.
Despite a lot of the words being relatively obtuse, there are innumerable signs of existential ruminating and, dare I say, heartbreak, throughout these songs. On one of the album’s highlights, “Tie A Rope,” Olsen kicks things off by singing “Tell me when this joy merges into pain / Tell me how many times a day” before the duo breaks into a dancy, Halloween-tinged refrain, not unlike something you’d expect from Ryan Gosling’s short-lived musical project, Dead Man’s Bones. On the aforementioned “I Own A Crown,” she becomes uncharacteristically blunt with the line “I’ve given you some love / Is that not worth a dime or worth a damn?” It sets the tone for a series of songs that find Olsen exploring a variety of lyrical landscapes with warmth and ease. The way her voice navigates through these arrangements is the musical equivalent of a mug of hot cocoa on a winter afternoon. She has never sounded more confident, which given the expanded lineup and arrangements compared to her past work, can’t be a coincidence.
Those familiar with Olsen’s work won’t find much else to be surprised about here; the linear song structures and overall intimacy is still very much present on Eat Honey, Taste Mud, and that’s something to take comfort in. Too often, artists try and reinvent themselves and the results are so dramatic that listeners pass them by. This is an example of a natural reinvention. A subtle expansion of soundscape, leaving the spotlight on what truly matters, and what’s always mattered: the songwriting. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more uniquely inviting record this fall.