Review: Sierra Hull, 'Weighted Mind'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
They start them young in bluegrass, grooming pre-tweens to master their instruments and study the standards of the bluegrass jam repertoire: all those hard-driving instrumental romps and high-and-lonesome odes to idealized cabin homes. Just about every kid picker wants to get to the point where she can jump in on familiar tunes and keep up with the old hands, maybe even eventually land an entry-level pro gig — often viewed as a sort of apprenticeship — touring in a string band behind a veteran leader. This trusty path is about more than paying dues. Learning to play a tasteful role in any given ensemble lies at the heart of a bluegrass musician's identity. Maturity means knowing your place in the group.
Midway through the previous decade, Sierra Hull emerged as one of bluegrass' most celebrated prodigies, a teenaged mandolin virtuoso who was also developing skills as a writer and vocalist. She found a champion in the genre's biggest crossover star, Alison Krauss, and a home at Rounder, its leading label, in addition to receiving elite schooling on a Presidential Scholarship to Berklee College of Music. The pair of albums Hull released through that period, while tentative showcases of her talents, proved that she had a great grasp on what it takes to be a well-rounded, band-fronting, contemporary bluegrass artist, should that be where she chose to aim her creative energy for the long haul.
But Hull's ultimate direction began to seem far from settled, as the gap between albums widened to nearly five years. In the liner notes of her new collection, Weighted Mind, the mandolinist explains that she proceeded in fits and starts, cutting half a dozen songs in 2013, only to scrap the results. "It was a frustrating and somewhat difficult musical period for me," she writes, "but out of it has come a new discovery of myself as a musician and I wouldn't change a thing."
Now 24, Hull has emerged an altogether different creature: a singer-songwriter performing apart from a band, exquisitely pensive even in her approach to her instrument. Her only accompanists are double bassist Ethan Jodziewicz and, in a couple of tracks, banjo giant Bela Fleck, who produced the album with her. There's not a lot here that you could call straight-ahead bluegrass; if anything, the shifting rhythmic pulses of "The In-Between," "Choices And Changes" and "Queen Of Hearts/Royal Tea" dexterously deconstruct bluegrass templates. With such a lean lineup, Hull's arrangements and playing feel nimble and capricious, animating her introspection with fine-grained melodic details and pinprick exactness, and she makes the most of her airy voice with clean, emotionally present phrasing.
As the album cover suggests, with its image of Hull struggling to tow an oversized version of her head behind her, these are the meditations of a burdened mind. More than once, Hull articulates her version of millennial uncertainty. "Dear 22, I'm stranded here," she sings during the orchestral album-opener "Stranded." "The In-Between" finds her ruminating on being "22 years with so much to learn / Too young to crash, but not to get burned." Elsewhere, she depicts something like a full-blown existential crisis. "My skin is old; I need to shed it," she sings in "Compass," growing more insistent with the next lines: "'Cause there's more to me / I have to let it out." For comfort, she turns to a Psalm about boundless divine presence ("Wings Of The Dawn") and asks that her mother soothe her with a hymn ("Lullaby"), but the title track expresses ambivalence toward certitude of belief. It's not a huge leap to imagine the pointed ultimatum she delivers in "Choices And Changes" being aimed at someone from whom her musical or spiritual paths have diverged: "If you won't go where I'm goin' / then I'll have to go alone."
Song by song, Hull summons the pain of losing her sense of stability; of having to renegotiate her relationship to seemingly everything and everyone; of caring so deeply about choosing well. As blunt a writing tool as doubt can be, in her hands it's a precision instrument. Like her contemporary Sarah Jarosz, Hull has joined the rarefied company of Nickel Creek expats Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins, pedigreed virtuosos whose youthful, searching musical minds have taken them into postmodern singer-songwriter territory and beyond. Most of all, though, Hull's made a stunning coming-of-age album and arrived at a new beginning in the process.