As intrinsically linked as music and religion have often been, it’s become increasingly rare to see the two commingling in any great capacity. There’ll be the odd country or hip-hop song in which faith is seen as a tangible driving motive, but with the majority of Christian music sidelined to its own isolated zone in the musical landscape as a sanitised product made for quite literally preaching to the choir, it comes as little surprise that the breakaway from religion – or even just viewing it from a more secular perspective – has produced music that tends to resonate a lot more. Thus, with Sarah-Beth Tomberlin’s At Weddings, the experiences of an artist whose life has been dominated – and subsequently led astray – by faith are palpable, the daughter of a Baptist pastor who was home-schooled until attending Christian college, and was forced to hide any non-Christian music from her devout parents.
And listening to her own music, it feels apt that one of Tomberlin’s first albums was Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, given the profound influence it’s had here. At Weddings is a very quiet, solemn listen, comprised of little more than gentle acoustic guitar with the occasional piano flourish, but saying all it needs to in the writing, and Tomberlin searches for a state of identity that’s been repressed by both the monotony of modern life, and the waning belief in faith that had been so instrumental in her formative years. It goes some way to establishing Tomberlin’s presence here as well, tentative and vulnerable as she wanders around her own head, backed by her equally frail instrumentation. And with lyrics like “To be a woman is to be in pain / And my body reminds me almost every day” on I’m Not Scared, there’s even more of a sense of melancholy that makes such a bare, simply-constructed album so effective.
Of course, there’s always the condition with albums like this that the artist’s feelings don’t always translate as well as they’d like on record, and At Weddings isn’t exactly immune. To be fair, the fact that Tomberlin is so nakedly open about her experiences with as little artifice as possible lifts it above many singer-songwriters in the same vein (particularly on more poetic cuts like Tornado and A Video Game), but even then, it’s not exactly difficult to see how some would be put off. The lack of any real dynamics is definitely something to take into account, and in the hazier, drone-influenced moments like Untitled 2, the drifting into sleepy indie-folk territory feels more like an ineffective stylistic choice rather than one to accentuate the writing above anything else. These moments are definitely in the minority – with her lyrical detail and floating, rounded vocals, it’s actually quite impressive how well Tomberlin manages to hold the listener’s attention – but their presence leaves At Weddings a couple of steps from being the really great folk album that it realistically could be.
Still, for as hit-or-miss as these sort of deliberately unassuming albums are, At Weddings is probably one that’s among the best. The lack of showiness is made up for with raw, unedited honesty, with Tomberlin being the uncertain protagonist that you’d expect from someone who’s been broken down by a force so much bigger than themselves for most of their life. This is most certainly not for everyone, but give it to the right audience and At Weddings could possibly become a cult classic in a few years’ time. It’s not quite there yet, but the benefit of patience is what will ultimately see Tomberlin flourish.
For fans of: Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, Damien Rice
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘At Weddings’ by Tomberlin is out now on Saddle Creek Records.