Northern Michigan is a buzzing hive for folk music. I used to hop around with my friends to all the indie folk and bluegrass festivals in the area just to go to shows. When there weren’t underground hardcore or metal shows to go to, folk festivals filled our calendars and vacuumed our wallets clean. An earthen meditation brought me closer to the sunbaked dirt beneath me, sitting on a low hill before a makeshift stage outside of a barn at Harvest Festival. Part of me believed I never knew intimacy better than hearing sweet and sorrowful folk tunes in what were the most wholesome concert crowds I’ve ever been around. Really, though, I miss the intimacy.
Minimalist, awash in choruses of sunsets, Emily Keener’s newest record, “I Do Not Have To Be Good,” is an indie folk paradise. Paradise is a loose term; beneath the surface of its sonics is a lackadaisical rebellion for freedom. The boon of indie folk artists like Keener, in the vein of Phoebe Bridgers, Faye Webster, and Angel Olsen, capitalizes on songwriting capability: “I Do Not Have To Be Good”is as lush lyrically as its atmosphere is.
Spring is over, but any time I see a lake in my scant quarantine travels, I think of how Emily Keener’s voice ripples the still waters of effects-dense guitars in the opening of “Nap.” A kind of nihilism swims alongside Keener as the record progresses—not only do the songs become louder, heavier, but they seem to become more claustrophobic. When “I Don’t Know Anything” passes, it’s as if she’s starting to run low on air. And me, too. By the next track, “Boats,” she does. A rubber band released into the recesses of water. The narrators of Keener’s songs embody a storytelling style akin to Haley Heynderickx’s “I Need to Start a Garden,” while weaving themes of belonging, religion, and doubt into her songs.
At its most vulnerable, “I Do Not Have To Be Good” bears with it an acceptance of personal growth and identity. The title track, likewise, is rather forlorn, practically dispelling the warmth of previous tracks. More often than not, the waters Keener treads are cold despite the heat outside. Although the bitter moments of “I Do Not Have To Be Good” eclipse the sparser moments of sweetness, it should go without saying that this is a record brimming with life. Or rather, a life that has been lived, and then some.
Oddly enough, folk music like that of “I Do Not Have To Be Good” is a kind that never fails to make me scared. Not from terror, horror, or something totally tangible. But rather, from a deep-seated existential fear that time is constantly lost, that freedom, too, is something we consistently lose fragments of.
Keener, albeit close to the listener on a musical level, seems to sing from beyond the bend of a river. Out in the woods, against the bark of a tree, singing alone, but as if surrounded by everyone she cares about. There she is, right alongside the fear. It’s there, the loneliness. I’m there, too, in the middle of the woods, and I’m surrounded by no one.