‘River of Light’ is the fifth studio album from Vermont based singer-songwriter Kristina Stykos. For the most part it’s an upbeat optimistic collection of songs which have the distinct feel of poetry set to various styles of traditional Americana music. Indeed, some of the lyrics are spoken not sung. Stykos explains the meaning behind the album title as follows; “Luckily humanity will come together as tributaries do, when it rains hard enough and each twisted stream straightens out its path with unerring focus. That’s right. It’s time, for we are the River of Light.” Thought provoking, spiritual, mysterious, full of deeper meanings and insights wrapped in clever word play is basically what we’re getting here. What we’re not getting is catchy hooks and memorable refrains. It’s an album one needs to sit and listen to in a contemplative frame of mind rather than sing along to while doing the dishes.
The quality of the recording is very good. Stykos does an excellent job not just with composition and performance, but also engineering, mixing and producing the album in her own “off the grid” Pepperbox Studios powered by the wind and the sun. It oozes confidence and experience and benefits from some beautifully played blues guitar work that perfectly complements Stykos’s rich gravelly voice.
The album opener ‘State Line Diner’ has a west coast feel with a chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on a Heartbreakers album. We’re treated to a couple of tasteful guitar solos, a taste of things to come. Lyrical themes deal with the passing of time, or more to the point, getting old but not quite being ready to be consigned to a scrap heap. Like a rusting old auto parked in the long grass behind the barn, it’s time to clean the windshield and take her out for one last spin. ‘I Like A Hard Hearted Man’ is a simple acoustic arrangement. A 12 bar I-IV-V track with lots of bluesy licks and runs with a BB King style guitar break. The title says it all regarding lyrics. Stykos explores the many and varied ways the male of the species can, arguably, according to the songwriter, be endearingly mean, insensitive and callous.
‘Walking These Ridges’ has a more folky traditional feel featuring Celtic fiddling and further into the album ‘At The Edge’ features a funky guitar riff and grungy slide guitar. At this point and to the end of the album the careful listener may be finding themselves wondering what these songs are really all about. What the point or message of the album is. The words and sentences all sound very intelligently constructed and full of meaning but they are often also very cryptic and in need of some explanation in order to decode. Lines like “hidden rivers in the ground”, “I want to sleep in the cleansing rain” and “watch you in the light of the cleansing rain” are lush with sense data but in the end are nonsensical. If there’s a criticism here it’s that the lyrics are just a little too personal and opaque to be accessible.
Fans of Kristina Stykos familiar with her previous four albums will no doubt be overjoyed with this album and continuing the journey together. If you listen to music with an ear for musicianship and strong performances it’s definitely worth taking the time. If you’re more of a sing-a-long earworm consumer then probably not.