The Moon and Stars is a masterful, singular effort and career apogee for Valerie June.
As Miles Davis once said, “Sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” This little proverb has become familiar almost to the point of cliché, but it has never described any piece of music as aptly as it describes The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. The the latest effort from Valerie June, a singer and songwriter from Memphis who has released a handful of very good, idiosyncratic takes on American roots music, with albums that honor tradition but never sound completely beholden to it. Her previous record, The Order of Time, reveled in the earthiness of the blues and the sharp twang in June’s voice, even as diaphanous sound effects dappled the edges of her songs, suggestive of another astral plane breaking through. But it turns out everything up until now was a warmup: The Moon and Stars is arresting in its confidence and vision, pure bravado in the way June draws from folk forms but then bursts them at the seams with sound, imagination, and color.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t important to know that June grew up singing in church, that she occasionally offers guided meditation sessions via her Instagram account, that her book, Maps for the Modern World, offers poetic reflections on mindfulness and dreaming. Regardless, her music attests to an artist who lives in recognition of invisible realms and spiritual dimensions; what Joe Henry calls “bigger things unseen.” She produced it with Jack Splash, and together they manifest interior worlds and celestial realities through colorful dreamscapes of synths and strings, drum machines, and trap beats. June’s writing is always carefully structured, familiar in its craft, yet here her tried-and-true forms sound like they’ve been left open at the edges, allowing other worlds to come tumbling inside. When she does lay into a more straightforwardly traditional number, it has the effect of anchoring the album’s dreaminess in something earthbound and carnal: check out “Call Me a Fool,” an impossibly swoony R&B jam, or “Fallin,’” almost trance-like in its rustle of acoustic strings. No matter the milieu, June’s voice is a marvel: just listen to how she reaches down into her gut to belt out “Call Me a Fool,” or how she croons “Two Roads” with a sweet caress.
Both in sound and in subject matter, The Moon and Stars operates in a sense of wide-eyed wonder, which means it can take a few listens to realize just how many of these songs are informed by heartache. June typically handles it with sanguinity; in the opening song, she tells a lover she’s never had any regrets, even as she admits that she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay. There’s also “Smile,” which nods obliquely to America’s history of racism and chooses hopefulness as a posture (“all I could do was smile”). Songs in a more metaphysical vein suggest a kind of surrender (“consciousness directs the stream / there’s a flow to everything”), but it’s “Fallin’” where June digs into her spiritual practice for the tools to deal with loss: “Well, I am willing to let go of what was never mine.”
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 4.