Sarah Donner - Black Hole Heart (2017)

Written by Joshua Stryde, posted by blog admin

It is difficult, if not impossible, to not admire this album. Sarah Donner has made a name for herself, in short time, as a singer and songwriter of extraordinary sensitivity. She has a clear lineage to iconic performers reaching back decades, but any influences in her music are ultimately immaterial because they are filtered through her consciousness in such a way that they are rendered quite individual and stand apart. Black Hole Heart is a perfect example of this. The dozen songs on this release feature a small band, discreetly threaded together instrumentation, and have an unity of theme that isn’t quite a concept album, but nonetheless hangs together naturally in a way few albums of this ilk even attempt to do. Her voice and words, in the end, are the thing that puts this album in rarefied air.

This fact is apparent from the first song onward. “Phoenix” leads off Black Hole Heart and it’s easy to hear why. This is a familiar theme to Donner’s likely target audience and she uses the metaphor in such an universal, resonate way that listeners will have no difficulty relating to its sentiments. The song, furthermore, establishes a template for the performances going forward. It isn’t quite correct to call the instrumentation sparse, as a whole, but there is a tendency towards economy throughout this collection that only serves to highlight her voice and words. It isn’t a bad thing to highlight. This statement only becomes truer as Black Hole Heart progresses. The title track shows off her penchant for effectively utilizing metaphor as she latches early on into the associated phenomena around black holes and quite artfully draws parallels to her experiences and interactions with others. It’s the first of two songs among the album’s most delicate moments. “Florida” is another song in that vein. She ratchets up the lyricism another notch with this performance and exhibits a great talent for drawing characters in her lyrics with only a few key specifics. Her observational skills and willingness to confront her own emotions are keystones of successful songwriting like this.

“Tamsen Donner 1847” is, arguably, the album’s strongest narrative and the point of view she conjures in the song will linger with listeners long after the performance ends. It’s a minimally arranged musical number primarily reliant on Donner’s lyrics and vocal interpretive gifts. Those twin powers come together quite impressively here. “The Flood” is an equally compelling narrative set to music, not quite as detailed as the aforementioned song, but certainly less removed from the common experiences of listeners and, therefore, more accessible. She writes and performs another weighty number with the song “The Longest Road”, but there’s flashes of dark humor creeping through the lyric that mitigates its seriousness a hair. Black Hole Heart doesn’t have a single hole in its running order. There’s no filler here and the intimacy she achieves outstrips similar efforts from modern artists. Sarah Donner is certainly working on a level all her own and we’re better off for it.