Music Review: Dawnbreaker By Daughter of Swords
The solo debut from folk singer Alexandra Sauser-Monnig reveals her effortless skill as a songwriter as she delivers an homage to the betwixt and between of a relationship in its twilight.
The persistent pluck of guitar strings is the sound of all that’s fleeting: Robert Johnson’s desperate attempt to flag a ride in “Cross Road Blues,” Bob Dylan’s peripatetic lovers in “Tangled Up in Blue,” Phoebe Bridgers’ trek down “Scott Street.” The meandering strings call to mind a stumble towards or away from some urgent place, a march that mirrors the slap of two feet. Daughter of Swords’s Dawnbreaker, the solo debut from Alexandra Sauser-Monnig—one of three singers in the North Carolina folk trio Mountain Man—is the latest album to chronicle these liminal blues, a 10-song homage to the betwixt and between of a relationship in its twilight. In these folksy riffs on well-trod terrain—heartbreak, confusion, hope that looks like the horizon on an open highway—Daughter of Swords adds a layer of nuance and tenderness to the panoply of songs that came before. It’s hardly a new vista, but Sauser-Monnig’s intimate, earthy songs make the view memorable all the same.
Sauser-Monnig can draw the perfect shape of a bruised heart with a blindfold on. There are country ballads (“Easy is Hard”) that conjure sleepless nights listening to the radio on without a single misplaced, derivative note. “Shining Woman” soundtracks the narrator’s admiration of a bicyclist climbing California’s Highway 1, recognizing the role of other women’s kindness and inspiration during lovelorn, dejected times. “Long Leaf Pine,” which conjures an afternoon in the North Carolina woods near Sauser-Monnig’s home, marks the record’s highest achievement, an old-fashioned incantation adorned in harmonies that wears its list of flora and fauna like a ceremonial wreath: blackberry, muscadine, snake, rabbit, all ordered such that anyone from the region could almost teleport to a certain lake, a certain peace that feels like sadness.
Sauser-Monnig’s vocals land lightly, more chickadee than cardinal. She is dexterous and pliant as a willow. It follows that the best songs on the record don’t force a compromise between instrumentation and melody, as with “Human,” whose wistful simplicity is searing. “You can’t will a love to life/But you can do the loving thing/Make like a bird and fly,” she sings. Backed by the simple strums of a guitar, it’s a moment of held breath, like a prayer.
Dawnbreaker has its imperfections. The record’s second half has more heft than its first, where the poppy levity of “Gem” and “Shining Woman” seem hesitant compared to the sparer, more intimate arrangements that suit her best. But even when it falters, Daughter of Swords’ debut captures the sun passing through a hot car in a nowhere town, the Big Gulp melting in the cupholder, the stops on a trajectory whose end is never entirely clear. It’s a record so precise as to be sensory, whose arrangements of harmonies, guitars, and lonesome trills are like the intake of breath before a faltering step.