Whispers and Sighs, as described by songwriter Mary Gauthier, is “a masterpiece, a parting gift from an imagination of genius.” The album is indeed a powerful last statement from David Olney, an underappreciated, long known as a songwriter’s songwriter, who ranks with the idiom’s best, be it Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and just a precious few others. In fairness, this is a collaborative project that has Olney writing songs with rising singer-songwriter Anana Kaye, and her husband Irakli Gabriel, both of whom hail originally from the country, Georgia, but reside in East Nashville where the sessions were recorded. In addition, longtime Olney collaboration and hit songwriter John Hadley pitched in on a few. The album has Olney and Kaye taking turns on intimate self-portraits, myths, tales, and various existential fare that run the gamut from provocative to unsettling, to peaceful. They are all well-crafted and the unsettled notion stems mostly from the fact that those of us who have long listened to Olney, can’t help but well up with a few tears, knowing he’s gone.
Take for instance the opening song, “My Favorite Goodbye,” which in an eerie way seems to presage his departure as he sings about a lover leaving – “She took everything but time…Time takes everything but love.” Somehow that lyric will be forever indelible. Kaye follows with “The Last Dream of You,” bringing the haunting sensuality of European music and some of that same quality in her vocals, as if a more refined Lucinda Williams. The vibe and tempo brighten to rock-like proportions for “Lie to Me, Angel” as Olney sings with a healthy dose of defiance and sarcasm as the song fades to resounding echoes of a loud argument. Kaye picks up this more aggressive spirit, leading us through “Thank You Note.” Even some of these titles seem to be foreboding harbingers of Olney’s passing. In fact, according to Kaye and Gabriel, mere moments after hitting save on the final mixes, the phone rang with the news of his sudden departure.
This is not to suggest that we have a dirge-like record steeped in morbidity despite some of those moments. The lush strings provide the perfect romantic backdrop for the Olney-led “Behind Your Smile,” a superbly gorgeous love song. Kaye takes the reins, singing emotively, in the acoustic folk of “Why Can’t We Get This Right?”, turns rock shouter in the raucous “Last Days of Rome,” and returns to her signature brooding, mysterious, sensual style in the contemplative ballad title track.
Olney delivers another memorable performance in the more stripped-down “The World We Used to Know,” a bitter mythical take on nostalgia that somehow rather coincidently describes the unsettled nature of America’s politics leading to the Election – “Who is the enemy. I don’t know anymore.” As that song ends in a blur of cacophony, Kaye gently next eases into the lovely, piano and cello-driven “Tennessee Moon.” “The Great Manzini (Disappearing Act)” begins with a chamber music-like intro that continues as Olney enters with his half sung/half spoke vocal for the album’s most searingly haunting track with such lines as “the city’s under quarantine.” Olney’s voice is so clear and distinctive in the mix over the strings, as if a voice beaming its way to us from the heavens. Fittingly, when describing the album, he says, “We have no idea where the songs come from, but they bring a peace of mind like an old photograph of home. Wherever that may be.”
Brett Ryan Stewart (Wirebird Productions) produced and mixed the record at his studio in Nashville. Stewart is another rising star in his field, having garnered Grammy consideration for projects he’s helmed, along with notable TV and film placements. Richard Dodd, recipient of the Best Engineer Grammy Award for Tom Petty’s Wildfowers, mastered the project which features an impressive array of Nashville musicians and vocalists — perhaps most notably Olney’s long-time musical collaborator and bassist Daniel Seymour, and bassist Chris Donohue, who has worked with such artists as Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, and Elvis Costello.
This is heady, soul plunging stuff, the kind that should earn high consideration on Year’s Best lists – a farewell of first order.