On his seventh studio album, the Philadelphia singer-songwriter reckons with losses both personal and political in search of a new beginning.
Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Amos Lee’s seventh studio album, My New Moon, pivots on the possibility of a new beginning. It’s not exactly a novel theme. Yet the title’s invocation of the first lunar phase, in which the moon initiates a new synodic month but remains unseen, feels purposeful and specific: It takes a while for the first sliver of moonlight to illuminate Lee’s black sky.
Before arriving at that moment, the album establishes a profound sense of loss; new beginnings generally follow the end of something old, after all. For Lee, the losses in question are both personal and political. Along with his grandmother’s passing—which informed the soulful jazz-pop of “All You Got Is a Song” and the gospel-leaning “Hang On, Hang On”—he mourns regressive changes taking place in the world around him.
“Crooked” opens with the famous Hamlet line, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” It’s a melodramatic introduction to the song’s political themes, heightened by harpsichord and toy piano, whose tingling flourishes hint at the childishness that now reigns in the public sphere. But Lee partially redeems the heavy-handedness of his lyrics with what has always been his greatest asset: his weathered voice, which he uses on My New Moon to plumb dark emotional depths. “There’s a crooked leader on a crooked stage,” he sings, before a note of dismay enters his voice and he adds, “Turns out that I’m crooked too.” Determining how the U.S. got into its current predicament isn’t just about pointing fingers, Lee acknowledges. It requires introspection.
The news cycle also haunts “No More Darkness, No More Light.” Lee has said that he “ripped the whole [song] apart and put it back together” after watching the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors expose politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” for the empty platitudes they were. “The day after Parkland happened, I was just… overcome with what the kids were saying and what our history in the United States is and what I feel like some of our obligations to each other are,” he told Billboard. In contrast with that heavy subject matter, the arrangement is unexpectedly bright. Lee frames the song with a bubbling, jumping rhythm that calls to mind Paul Simon’s Graceland; Malian guitar tones race up and down while a second electric guitar pulses darkly in the background. These juxtapositions temper despair with hope, finding solace in the latter without entirely believing in the redemption it promises.
It isn’t just in his songwriting that Lee is embarking on a new chapter. My New Moon marks his first album with Nashville-based indie-folk label Dualtone Records, after five LPs on Blue Note followed by 2016’s self-produced effort Spirit. The move relocates Lee within the Americana spectrum, rescuing him from stagnation. The words his remarkable voice communicates and the melodies that surround them haven’t always been distinct enough to help him rise above other soul-influenced songwriters, like Ray LaMontagne and Nathaniel Rateliff.
But My New Moon producer Tony Berg (Andrew Bird, Phoebe Bridgers helps Lee shed some of his earlier jazz-pop influences and burrow into an earthier, more textured sound. Unlike 2013’s Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, his most Americana-saturated album, the new record has arrangements that do more than just hang as a backdrop for Lee’s voice. Touches like the autoharp on “Louisville” and “Don’t Give a Damn Anymore,” as well as the drum tones on “Little Light” and “All You Got Is a Song,” build soundscapes nuanced enough to contain emotional resonance of their own, allowing for greater interplay between the instrumentation and Lee’s vocals.
When My New Moon finally catches sight of the new beginning its title promises, the album is almost over. The standout penultimate track, “Whiskey on Ice,” written after Lee met a couple who shared a story about losing their young son to cancer, surges with the promise of renewal. “I can see the light/Starting to take shape/I can see the sun seeking out escape/I can see the moon slowly creeping in,” he sings, hushed and hopeful, as a longing falsetto reminiscent of Bon Iver’s layered bellows shifts in and out of the background. This is not quite the dawn of a new day, but a different kind of light is radiating from the darkened sky—an aching luminescence that reveals a narrow, arduous path forward.