pb - neither prose nor poetry (Album Review)

The dulcet folk stylings of British-American folk songwriter pb, stage name of Phoebe Workman, are on full display across her debut album neither prose nor poetry. Through personable writing, up-close-and-personal performances, and fully-fleshed-out arrangements replete with sweeping orchestral strings, classy percussion, and stellar production, the album features songs collected from the artist's childhood to now. It is a comprehensive investigation into the psyche of one of the English-speaking world's most criminally underrated folk writers and performers. While that might sound like a tall claim, once you let this album settle, it's hard to deny. 

Workman has a sensual quality to her restrained vocals, not a million miles away from Nick Drake's contemplative musings, though she isn't afraid to raise the intensity in her expressions, producing an effect somewhere between down-to-earth realism and head-in-the-clouds escapism. "Simplicity", is an uptempo and buoyant introduction to an album that is often more serious and reflective than the opening track suggests. "Not As It Seems" offers a glimpse into Workman's innermost thoughts, with private admissions such as "I don't feel thinner, just the flesh of a human", helping break down the barrier between her and her audience. "Part Of Me and Parts of Others" is one of the more light-hearted cuts, exuding a Kimya-Dawsoneque energy with anti-folk sentiments. Obscure mile-a-minute noun-rich lyrics live alongside cutesy ukulele strumming. 

The album highlight, "Out Of My Element", is a confident merging of powerful orchestration and intimate writing, as though there are equal measures of New York sidewalk ebullience and English-countryside majesty. "I Miss My Accent" spotlights pb's conflicts with identity ("Did I forget myself or is this who I am?"). Being of American and British nationality has clearly had an impact, and this track could be a lifeline for those also struggling with cultural identity issues. "Found" was released as the first single from the album, and is a good representation of the exotic melodies and themes of self-discovery that mark the collection. In a recent interview with Each Measure, Workman shares that "‘Found’ speaks of finding a place for yourself in the world, but more specifically for me, it is about being a songwriter in a world full of so many others." 

Elsewhere, after a dramatic instrumental opening, "Searching for New" turns to piano-led balladry, and "peonies for pb" has a soundtrack quality. The album's closing track, "My Own Way", is more textural and lulling than its predecessors, leaving the listener with a satisfying answer to the questions posed throughout the album: Do things your way, forge your own path, and you'll end up where you're supposed to be, for better or worse. 

"neither prose nor poetry" by pb is an unyieldingly open collection of sweet folk songs that harness the true emotional depth of the writer to communicate themes of self-identity, connections to natural beauty, and escape into life's more romantic layers. Always bittersweet, never dull.