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Joanna Sternberg - Then I Try Some More Music Album Reviews

Sternberg’s debut balances stark themes of suicidal ideation, abject hopelessness, and self-hatred with whimsy and redemptive tenderness.

Joanna Sternberg is a New York-based cartoonist and musician, and on their website you can find a comic titled “somethings never change.” Sternberg depicts themselves as a lonely child in the first panel, then an equally lone adult in the following three. Underneath the strip, they write: “this comic is not me looking for compliments or words of comfort and is more to remind people that they are not alone.” If Sternberg’s debut album could have included the same addendum, it might have.

Sternberg comes to music with a strong compositional background—they specialized in jazz, blues, and ragtime at The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music, and the pioneering Yiddish singer Fraydele Oysher is their grandmother. They have an intuitive knack for rhythm and meter; while you won’t find any poetry on this album, Sternberg’s concision is underlined by a consistent metrical pattern that gives every one of their words a punch.

Sternberg sings as though they’re one half of a conversation that turns from loving, to argumentative, to sleepy, and back again. “I wish I was scared of poison, pills, and pain,” they sing on the opener ‘This Is Not What I Want To Be,” with all the nuance of a speaking voice. Despite only singing of despair and depression, Sternberg gives every single beat weight in a way that both somehow eases the burden and demands every word be heard.

Just because the lyrics are clearly stated doesn’t mean they’re easy to hear. With themes of suicidal ideation, abject hopelessness, and self-hatred, Sternberg’s debut can be a challenging listen. For those who aren’t dogged by similar feelings, it may be forbidding, but for those who are able to identify with Sternberg, Then I Try Some More has the potential to be life-savingly relatable.

Sternberg balances the despondency with pathos and whimsy—sort of like the way one laughs when admitting that they’re not OK. The sequencing alternates between sad ballads played on piano and ditties on a chicken-scratched guitar. In the middle of the album lies “Pimba,” a story of a fictional penguin of the same name, who Sternberg uses to make their dejection appear cartoonish and endearing. “My name is Pimba, I’m the littlest penguin,” they sing in a near-squeak.

In terms of predecessors, one would be most tempted to draw similarities between Sternberg and Daniel Johnston. Both write and enjoy comics. Both have a laconic pop sensibility. Both have been dogged by severe mental illnesses. Both could be considered a musician’s musician (Johnston arguably got his break from Kurt Cobain, while Sternberg’s already been scooped up by Conor Oberst, who they’ll soon be supporting on tour). But where Johnston’s passion made up for his lack of musical virtuosity, Sternberg is able to balance both skill sets, in a way that still manages to endow their music with pathos rather than preciousness.

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