Certain aspects of s?n ?a??s music suggest impenetrability, even if that wasnt her intention.
Theres the name, of course, though the alternate spelling, Sun Riah, appears to be a viable substitute. Theres also the fact that M. Bailey Stephensons fragile, heartbreaking songs are primarily performed with a harp, an instrument previously stamped as antiquated until contemporary folk artists like Joanna Newsom and CocoRosie unearthed it. Add in the fact that the Oklahoma City songwriters lyrics are longingly self-denigrating and you have what would almost certainly be discarded as pretentious or mood music.
All of which makes ..., the Musical a remarkably brave endeavor. By exhibiting herself in such a vulnerable state, with art so personal and unorthodox, Stephenson courageously opens herself up to a potentially damaging degree of criticism. Yet the prospect of striking an emotional connection to her music does exist, depending on how one approaches it.
As is the case with most music this ambitious, ..., the Musical is likely to draw its fair share of detractors. But this is modest music without any sense of grandiosity almost to a fault. Stephensons own description on her Bandcamp site is as apt as any: recorded in a bedroom with a shitty mic, a tired and worn harp, a broken ukulele, and a lot of love and sadness.
Coupled with the albums six-song, 28-minute runtime, Stephensons coy recording methods make for what is tantamount to a glorified demo. Its songs are rough around the edges, devoid of professional polish, and it wont be mistaken for anything other than a bedroom recording. But these are intimate and lonesome songs, and the albums secluded undercurrent fits like a comfortably worn mitt.
While still blossoming as a songwriter, whatever compositional growing pains Stephenson endures are made up for with her refined, often poetic lyricism. On For Dorian, for instance, she demonstrates a rarified maturity that few of her Oklahoma peers can boast: A fragile kitten I couldnt protect, a precious life I couldnt accept/Between life-givers and life-takers, where do I fit?
Aesthetically, ..., the Musical exists somewhere within Groupers reverb-drenched emotional wasteland or Jenny Hvals creaky, jarring brand of psych-folk, as Stephenson utilizes loops, nature sounds and effects pedals to harbor an atmosphere ripe for her somber melody. In the albums finest moments (For Dorian, the For Simps suite) her songs unfold gradually but purposefully and cleverly all the same. Such highs (or lows, depending on how you look at it) arent routinely met, but when they are, Stephenson attains an affecting emotional apex.
Much like Newsoms early unofficial recordings, s?n ?a??s debut is far from fully realized, but its nonetheless a supremely poignant glimpse of songwriting potential. Stephenson clearly has studied some of the most engaging artists in the psychedelic/freak-folk scene; its now a matter of discovering her own creative voice. ..., the Musical shows she has the artistic wherewithal to play to her strengths which, coincidentally, are her weaknesses in her nonartistic life but where she goes next could be even more exciting to follow.