As far as singer/songwriter music goes, my taste tends to skew older. I’d rather hear about raw, lived-in experiences than the broad platitudes any day of the week. Sure, the music might oftentimes be slow, relatively mundane, and lacking hooks, but intelligent construction and thoughtful writing can make up for a lot. On that note, enter Californian songwriter Alela Diane.

For the most part, she’s a writer I should like a lot more than I actually do. Her stately presentation as well as her grounded and expressive lyrics do a lot to win me over initially, but her reliance on willowy abstraction over fleshed out details in her writing can lead to some songs feeling a tad undercooked. This has been true of her most recent output, especially 2018’s Cusp, a good album, but also her most fractured and indistinct. Thankfully, Looking Glass is a return to the more accessible, textured Americana that made up earlier albums. It might not be as raw in its intimacy as Cusp, but I’d prefer Alela Diane over brighter, more colourful instrumentals any day of the week, especially when she doesn’t need to sacrifice her uniquely sophisticated songwriting style to get there.

Musically, Looking Glass is playing in fairly comfortable territory for Alela Diane: gentle, warm, unassuming. It’s almost enough to distract from how bleak the songwriting can occasionally get. The opener ‘Paloma’ pairs a burnished arrangement of pattering percussion and watery guitars with songwriting that has her contemplating the possibility that the world might never truly recover from the various problems plaguing it. The song has a feeling of patiently waiting for the upcoming apocalypse – perhaps even welcoming it with open arms given her relatively calm vocal delivery. A beautifully executed opener.

From there, the album descends into stripped back reminiscence. It reads like brushing the dust-off old memories to see what can be recovered and what connections can be rekindled from the wreckage. For the most part, the people in these memories are completely lost to time. ‘Strawberry Moon’, ‘Of Love’ and ‘Mother’s Arms’ are all musings on times gone by that can’t quite be fully recaptured, with the latter song being particularly interesting in how it discusses her relationship to her mother, especially as the pandemic impacted them considerably.

The impacts of the pandemic weigh heavily on Looking Glass generally. The song ‘When We Believed’ is a reflection on childhood innocence that looks back to a time in pre-pandemic times when life was easier, with the spacious, windswept production emphasising how distant she is from that time of her life. On a related topic, Alela Diane has an extremely compelling way of writing about the natural world. ‘Paloma’ includes imagery of getting swept away in rainstorms, while ‘Howling Wind’ once again frames the weather in a destructive light: where there once was a gentle breeze, there is now a howling wind destroying everything in its path. The framing of weather as destructive imbues this album with a core of helplessness, as if there is no escape of the ultimate fate nature has in store for us all.

This idea isn’t expanded upon further as the album progresses, and ultimately that might be its greatest weakness. For however good a songwriter Alela Diane might be across individual snippets, she’s yet to convince me she has the skills to build a fully cohesive album. That and a few songs can feel a tad underwritten – a bridge or some kind of sweeping switch up could have done a lot of the songs that make up the middle of Looking Glass a lot of good.

The bassline of quality that is built into an Alela Diane album makes Looking Glass impossible to dislike. It does a lot I absolutely love, but if Alela Diane wants to take the big step forward into transcendence, a bit more refinement would go a long way. Despite being six albums into her career, I reckon she’s got a ton more to offer. She says it herself on ‘Howling Wind’: “Is this how it ends? / Could it be how it begins?”

Alela Diane: Looking Glass – Out 21 October 2022 (Naive Records)