Tomberlin's Truth Is Gospel on 'i don't know who needs to hear this…'

BY Megan LaPierrePublished Apr 27, 2022

While characteristically unassuming on the surface, i don't know who needs to hear this… is quietly assured in the fact that someone does need to hear it. Sarah Beth Tomberlin can be certain of this: she had to write the good book she needed to read, so to speak.

Raised between Kentucky and Florida, the now-27-year-old singer-songwriter was homeschooled after her father became a pastor when she was four. She moved to New York City last May after wildfires wreaked havoc on Los Angeles, where she had previously relocated in 2019. Her exodus to an apartment in Brooklyn marked Tomberlin's first time living alone, and the newfound space to sit with her emotions was jarring. Adapting to not having to shrink her feelings for others was something of a grieving period.

Having grown up making music in church and harmonizing around the house with her mother and sisters, i don't know who needs to hear this… is the artist's first time trading in the pews — which she'd "need to leave, go sit up on the balcony / Sync my breathing with the AC / Pretend I'm in the nosebleed seats," she recalls on "born again runner" — for a real studio, but she found a similar sense of community at Brooklyn's Figure 8 Recording.

Co-produced with Phil Weinrobe (Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek), i don't know who needs to hear this… was recorded by the artist and her band live off the floor in two weeks while sitting in a circle. The intimacy of the arrangement is unmistakable, resulting in mixes that make the listener feel as if they're at the centre, surrounded and avoiding eye contact as Tomberlin's perceptive ruminations hold up an eerie mirror to their own; there's nowhere to hide from her nearly reticent, understatedly tuneful vocalizations.

Being understanding to the point of self-erasure is something she reckons with on album opener "easy," bolstered by a kick drum heartbeat and twinkling piano trills. She takes jabs at her social media habits and debates the merits of trash TV on the skittering, synthetic "tap." Meanwhile, "stoned" starts with a suitably unbalanced flurry for walking home from a party — such walks having been the stripped-down mood of much of the 2020 EP Projections, the follow-up to her acclaimed 2018 debut At Weddings.

The sparse simplicity that has characterized Tomberlin's sound prior to this LP wanes in favour of waxing denser and more loosely — an instrumental wilderness she hikes through on i don't know who needs to hear this… with reedy woodwinds, cello, pedal steel, brushes of percussion, wayfaring synths and the searing electric guitar distortion of "happy accident."

The record's undeniable centrepiece is the effervescent "sunstruck," examining a relationship with a recovering alcoholic and the meaningful growth that can come from distance. It's Tomberlin's alt-pop star moment, her dulcet tones peaking over spritely plucked guitar and ticking percussion. "We left behind some pain / To get to the magic thing," she surmises before taking another audible inhalation, readying herself for what's to come.

The majority of these songs stretch towards the five-minute mark, revelling in their own boundlessness. "The theme of the record is to examine, hold space, make an altar for the feelings," Tomberlin explained in a statement, having adapted the idea of the altar she grew up with to one that better resonates with who she is now: a sacred space of spiritual focus more aligned with witchcraft than Christianity. "Light your candle, cast your spell," she sings on pseudo-title track "idkwntht," which serves as a coda to the rest of the record. With guest vocals from Told Slant's Felix Walworth, its gentle invitation feels like an improvised sermon with a simple thesis: sometimes it's good to sing your feelings.

With i don't know who needs to hear this... , Tomberlin goes beyond avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump. She examines the posture of what it means to make an excellent album through her meditative reflections and the mutating organism of the soundscape she sets them against: an intricate domino sequence wherein avant-folk knocks into grunge that cascades into indie pop. She harnesses hope in a song by finding grace in her elegant turns of phrase and, crucially, herself in the process.

A Tomberlin song is a winding road, making use of negative space — grander and more resonant than ever on i don't know who needs to hear this… — and having reverence for the journey of the loose threads on their unpredictable weave to create a whole. It's a testament to her intuition and the emotional poignancy of her offering that, whether or not she had foreseen exactly where it was going with each beat, it inevitably finds its knowing conclusion: "Every time I open my mouth / Something halfway helpful falls out."
(Saddle Creek)

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