On the liner notes to Helen Reddy’s first album, the inimitable mother of rock journalism and feminine counterculture oracle of all time, Miss Lillian Roxon, described her fellow Australian and accidental-ERA-anthem-writer buddy as, “A certain sort of woman who is remarkably without artifice and remarkably without fear, who is made uncomfortable by polite lies and social deceptions, who refuses to face the world any way but straight on and who once she discovered there was nothing to hold back or hide or disguise, shone so brightly people found themselves blinking a little when they first met her.” If you believe in the iterative power of both music and the sacred feminine, Roxon’s reciprocal run-on there was likewise pre-describing Nashville’s own Sean Della Croce. On her debut album entitled Illuminations, Della Croce will softly tutor your ears in what tulips and windmills would sound like if they were tuneful. She will concurrently cultivate your understanding of mini maturities, such as that breakups don’t have to hold hands with bitter denunciations, and synchronously elucidate great four-quadrant truths to you, like that a joy story is always populated by quite a flawed company of well-meaning mummers.
If, like this unapologetic little piece of breathing Bloomsburiana writing these words to you now, you are the sort of person who is forever in frenzied search of a maverick maven with a formal Philosophy degree and a mind that will put you in mind of Socrates’ great female cohort and teacher, Aspasia, Sean Della Croce has answered your perpetual prayer whether you know it yet or not. Know it now. Illuminations will bring you just what its title suggests, and the closer you listen, the more it will impart its glow. Taken alongside its confluence with International Women’s Day in both theme and arbiter, Illuminations functions not just as the perfect apposite metaphor for why women’s stories are so worthy of wonder, but cracks the compass on Triple-A Americana, a genre particularly ahead of the curve in featuring dominant female artists, at the same time. The fact that this record shares a title with a novel by Mary Sharratt about a medieval nun, Hildegard von Bingen, who experienced mystic visions and eventually found her way to her calling through music is a topical connection, whether intended or not, that speaks scrolls and scrolls.
You’ve likely never heard anything as light and limber as Illuminations that was as full of carousing little anarchies. Downy subtlety transmogrified to celestial rebellion is an art form very few but U2’s The Edge could claim to have truly mastered. As of Illuminations, it’s now The Edge and Sean Della Croce. An unquestionable and immediate credit to her late stepfather – distinguished Nashville guitarist, Fur Peace Ranch instructor, and multi-instrumental maestro, the divine and infinitely influential Pete Huttlinger – Della Croce has been reared in an aural atmosphere of soft-spoken greatness. She carries all the bearings of the formal technique and understated power that is native to that storied fingerstyle appellation d’origine contrôlée, but has very much inscribed her own highly distinct Arecibo message across every sonant second.
With legendary L.A. bass-laser Alan Deremo at the helm of both the engineering and the backline on Illuminations, Vince Gill lending lead guitar on “Break in the Rain,” additional vocals provided by classically trained opera singer Mollie Weaver, and the gaspworthy-good Greg Leisz wielding the Weissenborn and pedal steel pole positions, you could spend a good week attempting to come up with a qualitative adjective that could house even half the towering talent present on this album. And that’s all before you get to Della Croce – at which point it is necessary to immediately disregard the inner dictionary and respect that you are encountering a wholly new cask maturation of susurrus satyress.
Della Croce is in possession of a rare voice nearly as light as Blossom Dearie’s, but as substantially imbued with soft scorch as Sylvia Plath’s, yet minus the arch undertone of Lady Lazarus. Della Croce somehow conveys that same level of Plath-like human knowing through her vocals, but, rather than fling it your way in our dear Sylvia’s famished fashion, she passes the incinerated edges of things to you in a shoebox she’s decorated expressly to hold precious Valentines.
The literary woman thread is not perfunctory or liminal. Alongside her musical prowess, Della Croce also serves as co-founder and editor of Broadside Print, sponsoring a quarterly feminist narrative publication wherein she helps paginate the lived experiences of marginalized individuals and works to shutter the kind of social silencing that demands such dilettante divisions in the first place. Translated to music, Della Croce’s seemingly innate ability to inhabit the minds and hearts of personas both exalted and shamelessly unwashed becomes something akin to the unfettered storytelling of Dolly Parton, but with the incisive feminine self-awareness of Linda Ronstadt. Illuminations is itself a collection of short stories set to song. It is also essentially Della Croce’s first lyrical poetry chapbook, sounding much the way Calabrian bergamot might if it could intonate.
Illuminations’ opening track “Then, Now” might just as well be a starling murmuration, swooping in astride its stunning steel guitar. Della Croce introduces herself like a standing mermaid living alone on a barrier island, singing her lost love back to her and seizing the sea with sentences. So that no one misses the symbolism: Della Croce opens her album politely proving that an epilogue doesn’t have to be garnished with a garrote. She uses the first song of her first record to salute an ending and to verbalize that even foundering fornever afters are beginnings of a sort too.
The titular “Illuminations” perfectly articulates the disquietude that comes with any form of enlightenment (no matter how life-giving or necessary) and then festoons that knowledge with pale-pink pélargoniums. Crowd-cherished “Catharine Street”, appearing here in both a full-color studio sketch as well as a sanded back acoustic adaptation, is glassine and full of God-soaked gallantry in both. The plainsong beauty in the lyrical message, “You can find me there in the back of the train / I’ve been writing you this letter since the day I saw the rain / coming down / coming down on Catherine Street” is a Dylan-esque daydream carried in on an obliging Exmoor pony.
Most people try in vain (and to varying degrees of embarrassment) to make agricultural orderliness out of destitution, heartbreak, isolation, and other such human hardships. Sean Della Croce has too much courage for that ditherer’s way. In “Break in the Rain”, she suggests such a crutch-like approach to the harrowing moments of life as the link rot it most assuredly is. You click on that and get only more dead-ended disappointment every time. Go ahead, says “Break in the Rain”, go the other way and willfully rock your rocking chair all the way off the porch. Let the ignominious ride down be the melodic descant that it can be if you’re looking at it right. Rather than try to act like you’re not on the edge, lay down in the dirt and try to enjoy the view from this particular mud – because it’s different mud, at least, from yesterday’s – and likely to be different, too, from tomorrow’s.
There is simply no way to overstate the necessity and glory of “Rebecca Henry”, a character-driven chronicle centering on a peculiar loner woman, happy as a threaded needle in both her physical and temperamental solitude. Della Croce’s delightful description of Rebecca Henry reads like a Kanban board of eccentricities and quixotic quirks any aspiring crone could freely crow over. She’s the cool old artist woman at the flea market and the witchy resident of the house you were too confused by, or scared of, to trick-or-treat at on Halloween. Rebecca Henry is also the naff neighborhood zealot whose possibly-poisoned pies you ate anyway, and she’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge triumphantly telling you in Vogue magazine that the novelist Patricia Highsmith used to smuggle snails through customs in her bra.
All the little salable subjectivities that make conventional women attractive to the male gaze are shown for their pitiable hollowness in this song, but without a word of vector – only the expertly-painted silhouette of its opposite. The total inversion of expectation that is Rebecca Henry receives a fine-tolerance rendering in Della Croce’s steady hand, and where lesser humans might see only “madwoman” blackberry copses within and around a character like this, Della Croce depicts these characteristics like the rare little dignities they really are.
The coven of mystical sources and spiritual foragers that is composed of all revolutionary women in music is a temple built of far more sturdy stuff than what any man-made material (yes, I mean it that way too) might allow. It is from the well of holy feminine truths this old that Della Croce seems to draw the imagery that bedecks Illuminations. Besides being an unavoidably genius pun, “Weak Days” finds a striated strength in what you have left when you have no honor left to defend. Lyrical likenesses to the burnishing that happens only to the “lonely sinner” and the crazy that comes “in with the moon” exhibit Della Croce as the auricular dramatist she genuinely is.
“Pacific Coast Heartbreak” sweetly invokes Neko Case’s voodoo-love-vessel, “This Tornado Loves You”. It hints at the same kind of lamp-lit spiritual solvency that only hurricane-like loves can bring. The idea of falling out of favor with a few of your former selves but keeping up a kind of epistolary friendship with whomever you used to be is a sophisticated twist on the traditionally cyclical ceremony of self-discovery in any incarnation.
“Lille”, with its rich Harriet Wheeler harmonies, puts the Flemish-inflected French market town of the same name to shame, and the phrase “I cannot lie if I don’t know truth” does the same to any authorial comparisons one might attempt for Della Croce. The sun-saturated “Monument” works like the kinetic wind vane that love becomes anytime it is looked back on, and (like we all do when we want to see just what we want to see) Della Croce here performs tasseography on the sidereal zodiac of memory. Nostalgia is a dazzling tyrant. You won’t know the power of her vanishing skills until you invoke them. Della Croce has skillfully done so and captured their erasure here for your close examination in this pearl of sonic siegecraft.
Illuminations is less Americana folk than it is bonafide American folklore, and of a uniquely womanly bent, both archetypal and an arcana all its own. It is a record that one wishes could somehow appear on microfiche – because it deserves something that earnest and working class to preserve it. These chord-crested confessions sit humble and splay-legged on the edge of a bale of hay, and what would leave most of us emotionally and verbally hamstrung pour out of Della Croce like willful, golden stigmata. If these divestitures cost her, she does not divulge it, but the listener’s benefit from the experience of that audacious self-subterfuge is prompt and unvarnished. Sean Della Croce appears on her first full-length release as much a fiber artist working her dual carding combs of sound and words against and through one another as she does a xenobiologist of the chemical microbrewery of tears known as human learning. In all this, she serves as a disparate choreographic answer to the tidy salvos and satiety points that less surgically introspective artists might use to stand in place of pain-won meaning.
Illuminations allows the listener an almost choose-your-own-adventure ambit through and around Della Croce’s bird-like harmonies. However, understand: for every warbling bluebird she nimbly nicks off Cinderella, she gives you the corollary trickster raven, privateering in the psychogeographic regions of her recitations with their cormorant chants of unlineated prose. You never knew Shawn Colvin could loop through Liz Phair, lace both with Lori McKenna, and nod at Rory Gallagher along the way, did you? Me neither until Della Croce showed me so, and all without a single thimble of sulfurous braggadocio. She carves these unimpeachable underwater sculptures with nothing more savage or despotic than acoustic guitar strings in her hand. In such a frugal feat, she offers you the last of her first artistic statements: that you don’t have to be swinging from the stands to be a real rock star. Like 12th-century Benedictine abbesses and every Rebecca Henry you ever met, sometimes all you need to switch on the shine is to move carefully and compassionately toward your own lights.